Spotlight on Young Researchers: Anna Schleimer

 

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.” 

"This was a unique encounter with a humpback whale while I conducted field work with my collaborators from MICS."

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.”

"This photo was taken during the 65th Meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Slovenia. Along with Dr Pierre Gallego, we represented Luxembourg at this meeting."
"This is me giving a talk at the annual conference of the European Cetacean Society in Madeira in 2016."

Published 27 April 2017

Anna is also the co-founder and Vice President of the Luxembourgish marine biology association ODYSSEA.

RELATED PROGRAMMES

About Spotlight on Young Researchers

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: Yamila Mariel Omar

As part of her Industrial Fellowship – a collaboration between the University of Luxembourg and company Husky – PhD candidate Yamila Mariel Omar helps industry to monetize their proprietary data by means of big data analytics. We speak to the Argentinian national who also became a mother during her PhD.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Konstantinos Papadopoulos

During his computer science studies, Konstantinos Papadopoulos realised how many unexplored areas there are in the field and his desire for becoming a researcher was born. Now in the 2nd year of his PhD at the SnT at the University of Luxembourg, the Greek national works on developing innovative new approaches to security surveillance.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Katharina Baum

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.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Michel Summer

For his AFR PhD at Trinity College Dublin, historian Michel Summer is re-assessing the political activity of medieval Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord, who in addition to being a landowner, scholar and ambassador, founded a monastery in Luxembourg. We spoke to the Luxembourg national about how history promotes critical thinking, and why he believes historians are needed more than ever.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Amy Parrish

During her Master’s studies, Amy Parrish found her passion for research with a clinical aspect. Having come from London to Luxembourg to pursue her AFR PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) in the research group of Mahesh Desai, the American national studies the bacteria that inhabit our gut, to shed light on the development of diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Dominique Santana

After completing her master’s degree, Luxembourg national Dominique Santana decided to spend time in her mother’s birth country Brazil. While there, she became intrigued by Brazil’s communities of Luxembourgish nationals and wanted to investigate further. Now in the first year of her AFR PhD at the C²DH at the University of Luxembourg, Dominique is examining the paths of Luxembourgers who emigrated to Brazil from 1920 – 1965, which has already rekindled old friendships.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Remko Nijzink

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: Antoun Al Absi

Antoun Al Absi has been fascinated by microscopes ever since his parents gave him one as a child. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian-French national cherishes the long hours spent on the microscope as part of his AFR PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), where he investigates how tumour cells escape the ‘immune surveillance system’, enabling them to spread to other parts of the body.

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Ramping up carbohydrates production

Carbs are all around us: a major constituent in food, they also play a role in many biological processes such as intercellular communication; they are in demand in the pharmaceutical industry, where they are currently used as anticoagulants and in skincare. With the goal of no longer having to rely solely on nature’s production of carbs, scientists have been working on ways to ramp up production. A case for chemistry!

Spotlight on Young Researchers: Gilles Tossing

Gilles Tossing’s fascination for the human brain – and why it sometimes fails – led him to the path of research. Now in the second year of his AFR PhD at Université de Montréal in Canada, the Luxembourg national investigates neurodegenerative diseases, with the aim of improving treatments for those affected.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies for analytics purposes. Find out more in our Privacy Statement