And the first one is done!

It has been a while since I wrote a blogpost. A lot of fun and time-consuming things have happened in the meantime which kept me from writing a blogpost (yeah yeah, it’s a bad excuse). First of all, Paola, my partner came to Sydney to visit me for 7 weeks over February and March. The weather was terrible but we did get to see a lot of great things in and around Sydney. I will write a separate blogpost about that at some point. The other exciting thing that happened was that I got to do the first experiment of my PhD! And that is what I want to dedicate this blogpost to.

As you may know, I was not very lucky in terms of my time of arrival in Sydney at the end of June 2021. I went straight into a COVID lockdown that lasted until November, and I couldn’t go to the university, let alone run an experiment. So when that was finally over, it was time to get away from my desk and over to the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS). This beautifully located institute in Sydney harbour has a great aquarium facility and that’s where I ran my experiment.

Not the best weather that day, but instead a beautiful double rainbow in the early morning at SIMS.

For this experiment, I was interested in the role below-ground microbes play in the performance of seagrasses when under stress from a marine heatwave. Interestingly, not much is known about the importance of below-ground microbes for seagrasses, especially not in the context of environmental change. There are indications that below-ground microbes indeed play an important role, similar to terrestrial plants, but so far there have been no experiments testing this. Coming from a terrestrial background, where the importance of the soil for plant health is now widely recognised, I felt like we should look into this more for seagrasses.

But why bother, you may ask? Seagrass meadows are incredibly important ecosystems that provide numerous benefits for other marine organisms by providing food or shelter, including for those cute seaturtles and dugons. They also protect our coasts from storms, and sequester large amounts of the carbon that we’re all happily emitting. If these microbes indeed play an important role in the health and functioning of seagrasses, and if the interactions between seagrasses and their microbes change under environmental stressors such as marine heatwaves, then this may have cascasing effects throughout the ecosystem which could impact a lot of marine organisms and humans that depend on them. So yeah, seagrasses are kind of a big deal.

Unfortunately, these important seagrasses are, like many other organisms in the world today, not doing very well in a lot of places. Coastal development, water pollution and climate change is causing them to dissappear at a rate of 20,000 soccer fields a year since the 1980’s (I know, that’s a lot…). You don’t hear so much about this compared to the loss of coral reefs or tropical rainforests, but they are in fact on of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Many ongoing restoration efforts have only had limited success and we need to know more about their ecology to be able to improve and upscale restoration.

So for my experiment I compared the growth of seagrasses under different temperature treatments while also manipulating the presence and absence of belowground microbes in the sediment and on the roots. I have to say that I was feeling pretty nervous before starting. I like to plan everything in detail and prepare everything as much as I can to make sure things run smoothly, but since this was my first seagrass experiment there were a lot of unknowns for me. Deep down I knew I would pull it off, but still. I definitely learned that marine experiments are a lot harder than terrestrial ones. There are so many more things to take into account when it comes to fieldwork such as the weather, visibility under water, safety issues, and damn sediment is a lot heavier than soil! And I’ve lifted lots and lots of kilo’s of soil before. Then when trying to keep the seagrasses alive it’s not just a decent amount of water and light (and good soil of course) that they need like terrestrial plants, no no, you need to keep track of the pH, temperature, and salinity of the water, the right light intensity and flow rate of the water. And then there’s algae that start to grow in places you don’t want them. Oh boy, oh boy, these babies definitely kept me busy! On top of that, there were also machines breaking down, delayed deliveries and me getting COVID right before the start of the experiment. What a ride!

It was a lot of hard work, but luckily all went well, and I’m now analysing the first data that I collected. There are some interesting results already, but for that you’ll have to wait. The next step, is to extract DNA from the samples I collected to see if the microbial community composition changed in response to the different treatments and whether that might explain the health and growth of seagrasses. But first, I’ll be going to Europe for almost 2 months in 1.5 week. I’ll be working from there but also going for a holiday in Italy together with Paola. Very much looking forward to that! And I might even see some beautiful Posidonia while I’m there 😉

Labelling all the jars with some cool neon tape.
Seagrass’ angels collecting sediment and seagrasses.
Putting some seagrasses in a jar.
Look how pretty! All the seagrasses in their pots at the start of the experiment.
A random huntsman in the lab at SIMS.
And a random kookaburra. Look at those beautiful wings!

Welcome to Australia, Renske!

Nature in Australia is what I would call extreme. It’s extremely beautiful, but can be really dangerous as well. The animals extremely cute, but there are also some very horrible ones. I was hoping to avoid any experience with animals of the latter category for as long as possible, but unfortunately that hope painfully ended today.

As some of you may know, I started surfing a couple of months ago. Sydney is the place to be for surfing, with some great surf beaches around. I am lucky to live at a 10 min walk from Maroubra beach (aka the bra), which is a world class surfing beach. Not the easiest for beginners I would say, but fun nonetheless. When I started surfing I got warned for the potential dangers in the water. We all know about sharks, but there are some smaller creatures in the water that won’t bite off your arm but can be very painful nonetheless. One of those is the bluebottle jellyfish. They don’t look like a typical jellyfish, but more like a blue, small sandwich bag filled with air that floats on the water. But this air sac is not the thing to worry about, it’s the long tentacles that are attached to that blue sandwich bag. And today I was the lucky person to get within a not very covid-safe distance of one of these assholes…

The first time I went surfing with my own board.

I was surfing, all nice and fun. The sun was shining, the waves were okay and then Marta, my housemate saw a bluebottle floating around in the water. Everyone here gets stung by them at some point and I was joking whether I shouldn’t just get stung by one, to check that off the list. And then I don’t know what happened, it was quite far when we saw it, but all of a sudden I felt this horrible pain on my legs. I took my leg out of the water and the bluebottle had completely wrapped itself around one of my legs. In my attempt to get rid of it, it somehow managed to also attack my other leg. What a disaster! While in the water, Marta helped me to try and get the tentacles off my leg. Which we managed in the end. Damn this thing hurt!! I stayed in the water for a bit more but then decided to go out because it wasn’t fun anymore. And that’s when the real fun happened…

As soon as I got out of the water, I started to feel strange. My legs were burning like hell and I felt a weird pressure in my chest. I decided to better be safe than sorry and walked up to one of the lifeguards on the beach to explain what happened and what I felt. They immediately sat me down in a beach tent close by and rinsed my legs with water. Than I started to feel worse and worse… I got really bad abdominal and back pain, all the way from my chest down to my groin. I felt like I was about to give birth or something. I would describe the pain like really bad menstrual pain but then much worse and throughout your entire torso. The pressure in the chest also got worse. They put me on oxygen and measured my heart rate and oxygen levels in my blood. They were not how they should be and a bit all over the place. I’ve never felt this terrible in my life. Because of the chest pain, they decided to call an ambulance to check out my heart. Luckily, by the time the ambulance arrived, I already felt a lot better. The pressure in the chest was much less and so was the abdominal pain. My heart was checked anyway, just in case, and luckily all was good. It was quite a scary experience! But I’m happy I now know what it feels like, so in case this happens and there are no lifeguards around, I know that I’m not dying hehe.

Now I’m back home and feel okay. No weird feelings in my chest anymore. The legs though, are still burning as if I decided to step into a campfire. This should get better in the next hours or so. And then I’m just left with some beautiful scars for a few weeks to remind me of this relaxing, Sunday afternoon event. Welcome to the real Australia, Renske!

The scars on one of my legs. You can see exactly where the tentacles attached itself.

It was time to stick my head in the water

After months of computer-based work, universities have opened and I can finally work on starting an experiment! It feels almost strange to be working on the design of an experiment and actually doing some practical stuff. I’ve gotten kind of used to lots of reading and writing and I’m enjoying it. Nevertheless, getting some of your own data, analysing that and writing that up is way more exciting. Also somewhat scary. This would be the first experiment for my PhD, and it’s not that I’ve never designed or performed an experiment before, but it somehow feels different. Maybe that’s because it’s a whole new system I’m working on, or because I don’t know many of the research methods, or simply because it’s my first experiment and I want to do a good job. Probably it’s a combination of all of this, plus the general unfamiliarity with the protocols, the university systems that are different from what I’m used to, or the field sites that I don’t know. But today was the day on which I could (partly) take one of these things off the list. It was time to go to the field and stick my head in the water!

For my PhD, I’ll be working on seagrass-sediment interactions and how we can potentially use beneficial belowground microbes to enhance seagrass restoration efforts. I’m particularly interested in the effects of climate change on these interactions, so for my first experiment I want to look at the effects of belowground microbes on seagrass performance during a heatwave. For this, I will be running a mesocosm experiment at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS). To do this experiment, I will need to collect seagrass and sediment from the field. So today, my supervisor and I checked out a site close to SIMS that has the species I want to work with (Zostera muelleri).

This was actually the first time I saw this seagrass and it was amazing. I mean, spending your morning snorkelling in a bay in Sydney Harbour, doesn’t sound bad, right? The seagrass looked good and healthy, and they were on average at a depth of 1.5 m, which would make it easy to collect them. I finally got a better feel for how to work with this species, how to collect them and where to find them. Next week, we will go to another field site where I could do some future field experiments. Already looking forward to that!

Zostera muelleri. The visibilty wasn’t amazing, but this is what they look like.
A school of some cute fishies, no clue which species. Can anyone ID them?

‘Sorry’ doesn’t seem to be the hardest word.

I started writing this post during my lay over in Doha, but got interrupted by someone that was looking for someone to talk to. I tried again on the plane, but fell asleep shortly after. This time I’m writing from the beach.

After a month of holidays in The Netherlands, I’m back in Sydney. It was amazing to be back and see my partner, family and friends again after 6 long months. I desperately needed this. My start in Sydney had been everything but smooth. A lockdown right when I arrived, meant that universities were closed and I had to start my PhD from home without meeting colleagues or having any decent opportunities to make friends. On top of that, Australia’s international borders were closed. No one could enter or leave Australia without an exemption that is almost impossible to get. I felt trapped. It was hard, to say the least, and very lonely at times. Luckily, I have a kind housemate with whom I get along well. She introduced me to some of her friends and I hung out with them regularly. Later when the lockdown came to an end, I also met some great colleagues. Nonetheless, seeing my old friends again whom I’ve known for years, felt like a warm bath. Making new friends takes time and building a deep connection isn’t something that happens overnight. So it was wonderful to catch up with them, even for one night. It somehow felt like I never left. Since most of my friends live in different cities, we’re used to not hanging out on a weekly basis.

The same can be said for my family. I grew up in the south of The Netherlands but moved to Utrecht for my bachelors and masters. Since this was a 4 hour bus/train ride or 2 hour drive away, I didn’t go home very often. Especially since I had a weekend job as well. Later I moved to Wageningen, which is about as far as Utrecht. Now, I have to take a 26 hour flight to see them. A little bit longer haha. My mom and sister were waiting for me at the airport, and my sister even made one of these signs to welcome me home. So sweet! We got to spend Christmas together and also saw each other apart from Christmas.

Last but not least: going back home also meant that I got to see Paola, my partner, again. Of course, she was also there at the airport. I didn’t think I could miss someone as much as I have missed her, despite daily calls and online dates. I very much underestimated how hard this long-distance relationship thing would be. Yes, you might say that it was naive of me to think that it would be okay. My view on this probably got clouded by the excitement of starting a new job and living in Australia; a dream I’d had for years. The fact that we couldn’t plan any visits with the borders being closed, also made it even worse.

Even though each visit back home was amazing, every ‘hello’ was followed by a ‘bye’ soon after. Every visit felt too short and left me feeling happy and sad at the same time. I didn’t think about this before I flew over and I guess I underestimated how different this would feel compared to my normal visits in the Netherlands. But for at least the next few years, this is what it will be like. Something I’ll have to accept.

I’m very grateful though that borders opened and we could see each other, but going back to Sydney was hard. I hoped that going back to The Netherlands would help me get rid of the sadness and lack of energy that I’ve been experiencing these past months. It didn’t. The stress of this pandemic, changing jobs, moving country, lockdowns, the constant uncertainty about pretty much everything, all while deeply missing my partner, has left me exhausted. This past month in The Netherlands, I definitely felt better, but going back felt like I was being smacked in the face, again. Don’t get me wrong, despite the weird start I like my PhD so far and I love living in Sydney, but being separated from Paola is killing me. This emotional rollercoaster of a long-distance relationship consumes so much of my energy, and has caused the energetic, funny, and passionate Renske as you may know her, to leave the building. Again, don’t get me wrong, Paola and I are in a very good place, and this challenge has definitely made our relationship even stronger over the past months. But not being physically together, just flat out sucks. Even more for her, because while I’m discovering a new country, enjoying great weather and a beach at a 10 minute walk from home, she stayed behind in our apartment.

When I talk to people about this or read stuff on the internet, they all say the same: take this opportunity to invest in yourself. Read books, pick up a new hobby, go out more with friends, exercise, enjoy what Australia has to offer, learn to be alone etc. This all sounds wonderful and I’ve done it all, but it still leaves me feeling empty. I talked to an Australian guy on the airplane who told me about his friend from the UK. She is in a similar situation and is only ever 80% happy. I guess that’s how I feel as well. All the amazing things I was looking forward to, somehow don’t feel so great. All these things are just so much better if at the end of the day you can come home and share it with the person you love. In person, not via Skype.

Now, I’m not the type of person that sits around waiting for things to get better. Because that’s usually just not how it works. Unfortunately. This situation is impacting my mental and physical health and something needs to be done. In our culture we pride ourselves pushing through things, and this is something I’ve definitely done in the past. Not a good idea. Definitely didn’t work for me. Quitting the PhD? Nope, not an option. I like it. I just want my energy back. Ending the relationship? Definitely not an option. I love this woman to the moon and back and wouldn’t let her go for anything.

So here’s what I’m going to do:

1) Accept that it’s okay to feel this way. I’m a sensitive person and for that reason maybe react stronger to these changes than most other people. That’s okay. If some days I’m less productive than I know I could be, so be it. If sometimes I’m more quiet or less fun to be around, sorry for that, but that’s how it is. Good thing that people in Sydney don’t know the ‘normal’ me.

2) Try to get over this horrible jetlag asap and pick up my normal daily routine again. Going for a walk in the morning, surfing/swimming after work, cooking healthy lunches and dinner. Right now I’m hungry at the weirdest times and awake most of the night. A fucking disaster. This will probably take a couple more days.

3) Make a plan to get some valuable output from my PhD while also maximizing the time I can spend with Paola. On a very positive note: her visa got approved and she will come to visit me in Sydney in a month! You may wonder why I’m still so sad right now, a month isn’t that long. Especially compared to the 6 months we just spent apart. I know, I keep telling myself the same. I’m just done with the goodbyes. Life is better with her. And I just can not and don’t want to miss her any longer. Luckily she is willing to move across the world to be with me and also work out a plan to be together. Yes, she’s amazing. And now that she’s almost in the final year of her PhD, most that is left for her to do is writing. And that can be done from anywhere. For me it is a bit different, but the rough plan I made so far should give me the possibility to spend some time working in The Netherlands as well. Covid has taught me that working remotely definitely can work.

If all this works out than we shouldn’t be spending more than a month apart again. Of course, you never know what the future holds, but I want to at least try to control what I can control. By the time she graduates next year this will hopefully all be over. She can come to Sydney on my student visa and find a job here. After that? Who knows. One thing I know for sure: if we move for a job, we move together. This never again. For Elton John, ‘sorry’ seems to be the hardest word. For me it’s definitely ‘bye’.

A warm welcome with embarrassing pictures at Schiphol Airport. Maartje, my sister on the left and Paola on the right.
Bowling with my sister, her boyfriend and Paola.
Gourmetten for Christmas. Something very Dutch.
A visit to our friend Jon in Gouda!
My cats! Oh, how I missed them too!
Me and Paola during a nice walk.

Bin chickens

I love Australian birds: there are so many different and very beautiful birds. The most iconic one probably being the kookaburra; famous for its crazy laughing sound. Here in Sydney there’s a bird that’s particularly well-known, and equally unpopular. Unlike the colourful, elegant birds such as the superb fairy wrens, the rainbow lorikeet or the sulfur-crested cockatoo which can often be found on postcards or t-shirts, this bird can be found all the way down the pecking order. You can see them all over the city, often scavenging for scraps to eat. They are like the pigeons found in big cities in Europe. It’s the Australian white ibis, commonly known as the ‘bin chicken’.

An Australian white ibis sitting on a bin down my street.

I get where the nickname comes from, but I find it painful to hear and I don’t like to call it this way. Something inside me feels sorry for this bird. It is a strange sight to see them sitting on top of a bin, so I decided to look into the reason behind this behaviour. As it turns out, this bird is another victim of habitat destruction and climate change induced droughts. Apparently, a generation ago these birds were a rare sight in cities, but from the 1980’s they started breeding in Sydney. As a result of these changes to their natural habitat, these water-dependant birds moved from inland wetlands to the coast. Now there are an estimated 10,000 Australian white ibis calling Sydney their home, while the population in their natural ranges has dramatically declined.

The typical features of ibis make them well-adapted to city life. Their large bodies make them too big to be preyed upon by cats. Their beak has a sensory tip, which they normally push into to mud in search of invertebrates such as mussels and crayfish. In the city, it’s a perfect tool to open take-away food containers that are now overflowing in every bin as a result of the covid lockdown.

Not all birds can adapt to city life like this. Humans are fucking up the planet, and it has a negative impact on a lot of plants and animals. Ibis may consider themselves one of the lucky ones, as they have been able to move into new habitat, change their behaviour and thrive in this new environment. So instead of looking at an ibis and seeing it as this filthy, garbage-digging bird, I would like everyone in Sydney to realise what kind of conservation message they actually bring. Ibis are only here because their home is no longer suitable for their needs, all as a result of human actions. In the meantime, I will keep calling them the Australian white ibis.