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: Isabel Z. Martínez
Isabel Z. Martínez has been interested in how policies are put in place and how they affect people’s lives for as long as she can remember. After completing her Masters in Economics, she realised that academia was the ideal way to quench her thirst for analysing large data sets and finding answers to questions addressing people’s well-being and policy decisions. The Swiss-Spanish national has been studying income and wealth inequality in Switzerland for years and has now come to Luxembourg as a Postdoc at LISER to expand her research to the Grand Duchy. We spoke to Isabel about life as a research economist, and how it has already enabled her to travel across the globe, as well as work with some of the foremost researchers in her field.
Spotlight on Young Researchers: Thomas Schaubroeck
Thomas Schaubroeck specialises in sustainability assessment of products. We speak to the Belgian national about the research he is undertaking in the framework of an Industrial Fellowship between the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) and company Tarkett; how working with industry differs from academia; and how he hopes his research can help industry steer toward a more sustainable future.
Climate change affects vegetation and water resources. In order to understand these changes, scientists use models – an abstract, mathematical representation of an ecological system. The challenge: Making accurate predictions under change, without ‘tuning’ models with data. We speak to Dutch national Remko Nijzink, Postdoc in the group of FNR ATTRACT Fellow Dr. Stan Schymanski at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), about his modelling work and the importance of an open science approach.
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!
When Katharina Baum was a teenager, her mother took her to a presentation about the Human Genome Project. Fascinated, she stood up and asked what she would have to do to be able to study genes. Some years and a degree in mathematics later, the German national and mother of two children now splits her time between Luxembourg and Berlin as part of her two postdocs. In her work at the Luxembourg Institute of Health, Katharina combines computer science, maths and biology to identify faulty regulatory mechanisms in cancerous cells.
Archaeologist and trained anthropologist Maxime Brami works on uncovering the origins and spread of agriculture, and has just landed a sought-after Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship. We speak to the Luxembourg national about what it’s like to be an archaeologist in academia, the collaborative nature of the field and why archaeologists have a certain responsibility.
Luxembourg is one of many countries experiencing the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees that have been displaced for reasons such as conflicts or instability in their own country. Managing a research team for the first time, CORE Junior PI Lucas Oesch leads the project ‘REFUGOV’ at the University of Luxembourg, which looks at the accommodation of asylum seekers and refugees in cities and camps.
Spotlight on Young Researchers: Steve Dias Da Cruz
While machine learning and deep learning have come a long way, they are not yet at a stage where autonomous vehicles can handle unexpected situations. As part of a public research-industry collaboration, early career researcher Steve Dias Da Cruz investigates possibilities to reduce the amount of data needed to train reliable deep learning models for safety critical applications in the automotive industry.
Gil Georges is driven by the quest for knowledge and strives to have a real impact, beyond publications. The Luxembourg national has just made the jump from early-career researcher to lecturer and group leader at the IET-LAV at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, where the data analyst and modeller gets to use one of Europe’s most powerful super computers when it is time for some serious number crunching.
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.