Women in Science – Alina Wieczorek

To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Marine Institute is highlighting the many brilliant women who play transformative and ambitious roles in understanding, exploring, protecting and sustainably managing our oceans wealth.

The Marine Institute is profiling our female scientists, sharing their study and career paths, the work they do at the Marine Institute and the important contribution their work delivers.

Alina Wieczorek, Marine InstituteAlina Wieczorek
Post-Doctoral Researcher, Fisheries Ecosystems Advisory Services
Marine Institute

What is your current role at the Marine Institute and what's involved in your daily work?
I am a Post-Doctoral Researcher based in the Marine Institute's Fisheries Ecosystems and Advisory Services team and conduct research in the context of the MEESO project (www.meeso.org). This project investigates ecologically and economically sustainable mesopelagic fisheries. Mesopelagic fish inhabit the mid-water, twilight (dimly-lit) zone of our oceans which stretches between 200-1000 metres. In this zone we can find a large biomass of fish and gelatinous (jellyfish-like) creatures which fulfil important ecological functions such as the transport of captured anthropogenic carbon dioxide to the deep sea. Due to the large biomass these fish provide, there is a growing interest in harvesting mesopelagic fish for food in the future. It is therefore important to learn more about these fish to make sure that we will do so sustainably.

My task within the MEESO (European H2020) project is to see how we can use hydroacoustics to get a better idea of the distribution, abundance and biomass of mesopelagic organisms. This involves participating in research surveys aboard the RV Celtic Explorer. During these surveys we use an echosounder to send sound into the water. We then look at the backscatter of the sound of the creatures swimming in the water below. We also use nets and camera systems to sample these organisms. When I return from sea, I then study the shape and external structures of the fish in the laboratory. Once I have all the acoustic and biological data together, I will then be able to come up with some estimates of which organisms and how many of them are swimming in the twilight zones of our oceans.

Being a researcher does not only involve sampling, laboratory and computer work. Other important parts of my work include exchanging information with other scientists across the world about how they collect samples and analyse their data. We usually do this at conferences, workshops or working group meetings. Finally, a large part of my work also involves reporting on our findings. This is done through special reports, research articles and we are now also focussing much of our efforts on reaching out to society and decision makers through articles, videos and policy briefs.

What did you study and why?
I originally studied graphic design in Germany, my home country, and I quickly realised that this was not for me. As I have always been a passionate swimmer and have a great fascination for nature, I found myself volunteering at a small marine research station in Uruguay in search for my dream job. It was there that I discovered my passion for marine science. When I returned from South America I moved to Ireland, and started the Marine Science Bachelors programme in NUI Galway. I had many inspiring experience during my studies, ranging from field trips in Connemara, a training weekend on the RV Celtic Voyager to an extremely fascinating final year project on the diet of small sharks. After my Bachelors degree, I was offered a PhD position investigating microplastic pathways in marine pelagic (open ocean) systems. Throughout my PhD I had the privilege of joining a few research cruises and was very intrigued by how one can use acoustics to assess fish in the water. I was therefore thrilled when the opportunity arose to become part of the exciting endeavour of investigating mesopelagic fish using hydroacoustics.

What are your interests and passions? Do you like to spend time outside of work by the ocean?
I am certainly a thalassophile - I love being on, in and around the sea. I particularly love surfing in the wild Atlantic waters around Ireland and on calmer days I like to go for a snorkel around the shoreline, or further off the shore when I take the kayak out with me. Over the last three years, I have also tried freediving and spearfishing, which has been quite challenging in Ireland because of the cold temperatures.

What is the best thing about working in the Marine Institute? What do you enjoy most about your job?
I started working in the Marine Institute about a year ago, and only got to spend a few weeks in the office at the Institute in Galway before I started working from home. This has made it harder to enjoy much of the day-to-day interactions with new colleagues. Nevertheless, everyone has been very welcoming and helpful and made every possible effort to include me in activities. I think this welcoming and friendly atmosphere really allows everyone to flourish and develop and is why I enjoy working in the Marine Institute the most. Beyond this, the Marine Institute has many international connections and is involved in many international networks which makes it easy to form connections and collaborations with other scientists which is particularly important for emerging researchers like myself.

What I enjoy the most about my job is going on research surveys. While rough seas and being away from friends and family for few weeks at a time is not always easy, I am very grateful to be able to learn about and make discoveries in these relatively unknown parts of our ocean. What I find hugely satisfying are 'Eureka' moments of my job – for example when I analyse my data and notice that the abundance of one organism is linked to a certain physical or biological parameter, it really shows how interconnected everything is.

What is something you think everyone should know about the ocean?
I am a big fan of fun facts and quirky creatures so I tend to tell people about the in-ward pointing, many rows of teeth most sharks have, the contracting plates of a leatherback turtle carapace, the bullet-fast punch of the mantis shrimp or I simply tell them to google "barreleye" or "sheep fish".

However, while those quirky facts may be entertaining, I think one thing we all should know is how much we rely on our oceans. We rely on it for food – 10 % of the world's population depend on fisheries for livelihoods and 4.3 billion people rely on it as a source of protein. We rely on it for the air we breathe – the oceans produce more than half the oxygen we breath and have been estimated to have taken up a quarter to half of all the anthropogenic carbon dioxide released during the past two centuries. And we rely on the ocean for resilience – the organisms we find in our oceans are incredibly diverse and it is this biodiversity which allows life on earth to adapt to changing environmental conditions and create a stable habitat for life on earth.

Knowing this will make us all appreciate what the oceans do for us, so that we can start to think what we can do for the oceans and work towards sustainable management of our seas. This year, marks the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development will be an important step in achieving this.