In high school, Anna Schleimer thought everything there was to know in science was already known. When she discovered how many unanswered questions there still are, curiosity drove her to become a researcher. The Luxembourg national is now in the 1st year of her AFR PhD, in what is not your most common topic: As a marine biologist, Anna studies fin whales as part of her joint PhD at University of Groningen and University of St Andrews.
“Our knowledge about these animals is surprisingly sparse and we still do not know where they go in winter and where their calves are born”, Anna says about fin whales.
Fin whales are the second largest mammals in the world, outsized only by the blue whale. With only an estimated 50,000 – 90,000 fin whales left in the world, they are an endangered species, a consequence of intensive whale hunting in the past. According to WWF, nearly 750,000 animals were killed in areas of the Southern Hemisphere alone between 1904 and 1979.
Four fin whales recorded from bird’s eye view as part of the MICS (Mingan Island Cetacean Study) Anna is working on for her PhD. Copyright: ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) and MICS (Mingan Island Cetacean Study).
Field work only a small part of the work
“Against all expectations, I do not spend all day on a boat watching whales”, Anna says, adding: “While I do have two months of field work in summer when I will get to do boat surveys in Canada during which we collect photo-identification pictures and biopsy samples, I spend the other ten months of the year in the office analysing the data.”
In the first part of her PhD, Anna will study the population structure of fin whales in the North Atlantic, aiming to find out if all fin whales in the North Atlantic belong to one single, large population, or rather multiple small populations. This part of the project will help ensure the effective management of fin whales in the North Atlantic. Anna elaborates:
“In the other part of the PhD, I focus on the fin whales that aggregate every summer in the Gulf of St Lawrence by estimating abundance and survival from 2010 to 2016. In recent years, field researchers have noted alarmingly low numbers of calves in the area, which could be an indication for changes either in pregnancy rates or in calf mortality.
“I will analyse levels of progesterone in blubber samples to investigate if there have been any changes in pregnancy rates over the past years which could explain these observations.”
Working with highly elusive animals
Anna points out that even a seemingly easy task, such as estimating how abundant an animal is becomes a statistical challenge when working with animals as elusive as marine mammals:
“Working with marine mammals can be very challenging, because they are long-lived and far-ranging mammals that hide mostly below the water surface. The researcher only gets a brief glimpse, maybe enough to take a photograph, collect a sample or attach a tag, in order to learn more about them. I like the challenge and it makes every study unique.”
So why did Anna become a researcher? “In high school I was under the impression that we know everything there is to know in science. Little did I know how many open questions there are still left unanswered”, Anna says and adds: “So it is mainly out of curiosity that I chose the path of researcher in order to contribute to the increasing body of knowledge in biology and ecology.”
Luxembourg has a marine biology association
In addition to her PhD studies, Anna is the co-founder and Vice President of the Luxembourgish marine biology association ODYSSEA. She founded the association in 2013 with three fellow marine biologists – the goal is to promote marine research, conservation and awareness in Luxembourg:
“If Luxembourg can have an established space mining programme, then why not also a marine biology institute? The value of research lies beyond its economic value and I hope the diversity of research topics will keep growing in Luxembourg.”
Anna points out that even Luxembourg, despite being a landlocked country, has a very strong link to the oceans and that the country participates in conventions and conferences, such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).
Ensuring research drives policies
The PhD is only the beginning of Anna’s career as a marine biologist, long-term she hopes to be able to help ensure research findings are actually applied:
“Like every researcher, I would like to see my work put to some use and it would be a great achievement if findings from my research had a direct impact on policies and management of fin whale populations in the North Atlantic. Long-term I would like to get more involved in the decision-making process to make sure the full potential of scientific findings is used to drive policies.”
Spotlight on Young Researchers is an FNR initiative to highlight early career researchers across the world who have a connection to Luxembourg. This article is the 8th in a series of around 20 articles, which will be published on a weekly basis. You can see more articles below as and when they are published.
Spotlight on Young Researchers: Understanding our immune system
Stemming from Italy, Indonesia, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain, the members of the Experimental & Molecular Immunology Group truly are an international team. In the group of FNR ATTRACT Fellow Prof Dr Dirk Brenner at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), the team of young researchers investigates different aspects of the immune system with one common goal: Understanding how our immune system is regulated by different mechanisms – and how this knowledge can be used to combat disease.
Spotlight on Young Researchers: Dimitra Anastasiou
In 2015, Dimitra Anastasiou was featured in our campaign ‘Spotlight on Young Researchers’, which highlighted early-career researchers with a connection to Luxembourg. In November 2015, Dimitra moved to Luxembourg with her young family to start her prestigious Marie Curie Individual Fellowship at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST). One year on, we caught up with Dimitra!
Spotlight on Young Researchers: Léon-Charles Tranchevent
Léon-Charles Tranchevent says he has found the perfect job in being a researcher. Cherishing the freedom and unexpectedness of his line of work, the computational biologist also feels it’s his duty to contribute to the training of the next generation of researchers. The French national has recently begun his AFR Bilateral Postdoc at the Luxembourg Institute of Health in collaboration with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.
Spotlight on Young Researchers: Max Hilaire Wolter
During his Bachelor studies in physics and photovoltaics at the University of Luxembourg, Max Hilaire Wolter was exposed to live-action research for the first time. The experience left such a positive impression that Max proactively sought out to return to the same lab for a PhD after completing his Master’s studies abroad. We spoke to the Luxembourg national about why research is fun, solar cells and the importance of science outreach.
Pit Ullmann’s interest in natural sciences was piqued in high school. The Luxembourg national went on to study molecular biology at the University of Innsbruck and then found himself desiring a job that would be both interdisciplinary and diversified – fast forward and Pit is now completing his AFR PhD at the University of Luxembourg, where his research group studies why and how colon cancer develops and spreads.
Kacy Greenhalgh has always had an affectation for medicine and health, and how health can be influenced by dietary habits. During her Master studies, the Luxembourg-American national was introduced to FNR ATTRACT Fellow Paul Wilmes and the ‘gut on a chip’, HuMiX. Fascinated by its potential, and how it could be used to study the relation between diet and health, Kacy’s curiosity led her straight to an AFR PhD at the LCSB at the University of Luxembourg.
Spotlight On Young Researchers: Henderika de Vries
Are creative people better at regulating emotions, and are there cultural differences? This is one of the questions Henderika (Herie) de Vries wants to answer. Having already discovered that cultural differences impact the creative potential of children, the Dutch-Luxembourgish national hopes to understand more aspects of how our cultural circumstances can influence our capacity for creative thinking.
Spotlight on Young Researchers: Miguel Angel Olivares Mendez
Miguel Angel Olivares Mendez works on mobile robots – more specifically: he develops algorithms that enable drones to fly around and perform various tasks autonomously, such as inspecting big structures. The Spanish national came to Luxembourg in 2013 after he came across a Postdoc position that fit like a glove.
Spotlight on Young Researchers: Carole Lara Veiga de Sousa
Why can our bodies defend itself against some diseases but not others? This is something Carole Lara Veiga de Sousa has always been eager to understand. In the framework of her PhD at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) and Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), the Portuguese national took at closer look at the microglial cells – immune cells in the central nervous system – and what impact they have on the brain’s ability to fend of infections.
Anna Monzel cites her thirst for new knowledge and discoveries as a key contributor in her choosing to follow the path of science. Drawn to Luxembourg because of its interdisciplinary approach, the German national developed a 3D model of the human midbrain for her PhD at the LCSB at the University of Luxembourg – which earned her a Lush Young Researcher Prize.