Rainbow Research – Harmony

Post provided by Renske Jongen

The Rainbow Research series returns to the British Ecological Society to celebrate Pride month 2022! These special posts promote visibility and share stories from STEM researchers who belong to the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Each post is connected to one of the themes represented by the colours in the Progress Pride flag (Daniel Quasar 2018). In this post, Renske Jongen shares her  journey on the way to studying seagrasses and their below-ground microbiome at the University of Sydney.

About me and my research

There we were, me and my best friend, sitting in the bushes with a dead mouse in front of us. Are we sure it’s dead? Were we really going to do this? Yep, we were, and it ended up being the gossip among the parents of the kids in my class.

The weird kid in school? Oh yeah, that was me. Instead of playing with dolls or barbies like most young girls do, I spent most of my time in the bushes looking for animals. Armed with a jar, a magnifying glass and a field guide on animals in Europe, I was determined to find all the animals listed in that book. The date of sighting and anything special I noted was carefully written down in a notebook. My desire to learn more about nature went so far that I even buried dead animals that I found, only to collect and study their skeletons later (I unfortunately never found any bones back…). That’s also how I ended up with that dead mouse I found. Only this time I wasn’t going to bury it, I wanted to study its anatomy. Me and my best friend decided it was a good idea to cut open that mouse and see what it looked like from the inside. I told you, I was weird.

Luckily, my weirdness didn’t hinder me much in making friends. I also had parents that encouraged my interest in nature. With my dad, I would spend my school lunch breaks catching frogs from the pond in the nearby forest, and my mom let me keep all kinds of animals as pets. Ranging from cats and birds, to lizards and albino African clawed frogs. She taught me to treat plants and animals with care and respect. Many weekends were spent washing cars to collect money for WWF, or collecting signatures to stop the wildlife trade. It may come as no surprise that I became a vegetarian at the age of 10, because loving animals and eating them at the same time made no sense to me. It still doesn’t by the way, and I became a vegan a couple of years ago.

Left: at the butterfly garden.
Credit: Renske Jongen.
Right: taking care of stray cats while on holiday in Spain. Credit: Renske Jongen.

At the age of four, I was convinced that I wanted to become a veterinarian. Later when choosing my bachelor program, I found out that studying biology actually suited me more. I wanted to know how nature works and save animals from extinction.

I’ll never forget Frederieke Wagner-Cremer, a professor at Utrecht University. She was the first professor during my bachelor’s that showed me that women in science can be inspiring AND funny. She has the most wicked sense of humour, and during her lectures most of the discussions where about environmental change. Ever since that course, this has been the central topic of all the research projects that I have worked on. She explained how the interactions between different organisms can change dramatically in response to climate change. To me this was really interesting; studying these variety of responses to climate change might help us understand which organisms are capable of adapting to the changing climate, and which ones may be in trouble.

For my master’s, I therefore ended up studying the seasonal timing of the winter moth, as well as fish behaviour in response to climate change. Right after my master’s I started working as a research assistant at The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), working on the interactions between plants and the soil. Working here made me realize that if I really wanted to save those animals I wanted to save as a young girl, the best way to do so is by conserving or restoring their habitat. And to do that, you need to know how that system works.

Seagrasses growing at Chowder Bay next to the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS). The water was a bit murky after all the rain of the past months. Credit: Renske Jongen.

And here I am, doing exactly that. For my PhD, I moved from The Netherlands to Australia to study the interactions between seagrasses and below-ground microbes in the context of climate change. Seagrasses are marine flowering plants, that evolved from terrestrial plants and then returned back to the sea around 140 million years ago. You could call them the ‘whales’ of the plant kingdom. They are incredibly important because they support many other marine organisms by providing food or shelter, for example to sea turtles and dugongs. They also protect our coasts from storms, trap plastic particles and sequester large amounts of carbon. Unfortunately, seagrasses are not doing very well in a lot of places. In fact, we’re losing an area the size of 20,000 soccer fields around the world every year since the 1980’s as a result of stressors such as coastal development and climate change. You don’t hear so much about this compared to the loss of coral reefs or tropical rainforests, but these important seagrasses are actually one the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Lots of efforts are underway to conserve and restore seagrass meadows but often only have limited success.  

Interestingly, most of the restoration efforts have only focused on improving above-ground conditions such as water clarity, while ignoring what is happening below-ground, in the sediment. For terrestrial plants we already know for quite some time that the soil, and soil microbes play an important role in the health of plants. For seagrasses not much is known about the importance of below-ground microbes for seagrasses, especially not in the context of environmental change.

Thinking really hard during the first experiment of my PhD at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS).

For my PhD, I’m therefore studying these interactions between seagrasses and below-ground microbes, and see how these interactions change with climate change. If we know which microbes and what sediment conditions help seagrasses do better, then we can use that knowledge to improve restoration or monitoring techniques. I hope that my work will give some tangible outcomes that will help with just that.

My identity and what pride means to me

There are two main things that make up my identity: being vegan and a lesbian. As far apart as these two things seem to be (being vegan is a choice, being queer definitely isn’t), they actually share a lot of common ground. The link between identifying as non-heterosexual and living a plant-based life is that both don’t fit in the world’s view of society as it is now. Because heterosexuality and eating meat are seen as the normal and natural thing. Pride to me therefore means challenging and normalising identities and practices outside social norms. I don’t necessarily think that being queer or vegan should be celebrated. Simply by being open about it, I hope to open the eyes of the people around me to things that might seem ‘different’ to them. I want to help create a society that respects and embraces different groups of people and extending that to different species.

For that reason, I chose the colour ‘blue’ of the Pride Flag, which stands for ‘harmony’ as the best reflection of me and my research. In the end, everything in life is about combining all of our diverse and competing needs in such a way that the whole system works.

I was lucky to grow up in a non-religious family and a country like The Netherlands where people are usually pretty open-minded. I never really had a big coming out. After being in relationships with men for many years, I fell in love with a woman. I then realized that I preferred women over men and that was it. It should be like that for everyone. Unfortunately, the acceptance of homosexuality in society is often lacking behind despite major changes to the rights of LGBTQ+ people around the world. The same goes for animal rights or environmental change: must of us agree that something needs to be done, but the actual changes in society are happening too slow. I believe that the world could thrive if we all just had a little more understanding and respect for every human, animal and plant that is out there.

To PhD or not to PhD (part 2) – my story and some words of advice

A while ago, I wrote about the path that led me to this PhD, but I didn’t quite finish the story yet. Like I wrote, I ended up writing an email with my expression of interest in the PhD position that was advertised on Twitter. I remember that hitting the ‘send’ button already felt like a huge thing to me. But I didn’t have much time to think about it, as I got a positive email back from Paul the next working day. He seemed keen on working with me and wanted to Zoom to discuss things further together with Ziggy. And so we did.

We met via Zoom at 7am (time differences are great). I was super nervous and didn’t sleep at all that night. I guess the reason for that was that, I don’t know why, I somehow knew this was going to happen. That I was going to do a PhD and I would do that at the other side of the world. I was kind of fooling myself by pretending that this didn’t make me super enthusiastic. I might have been fooling myself, but I definitely wasn’t fooling my girlfriend. She saw this coming from miles away. She was also the one that convinced me to write that email. I couldn’t have gotten any better support from a partner than the way she supports me. So, mom, blame her for me being so far away now 😉

Anyway, Paul, Ziggy and I met and the meeting went great. Both Paul and Ziggy seemed like really nice people and the conversation went pretty smooth. They also seemed open to my ideas and input and were very much open to discuss the direction in which I wanted to go. As this PhD was not funded, we also talked about the scholarship for which I had to apply, if I wished to proceed with this PhD. The deadline was in 5 weeks, and the clock was ticking.

When we ended the meeting, I was flooded with all kinds of emotions: happiness, fear, confusion and excitement. Everything sort of fell into place, and at the same time, didn’t make sense at all. To make the final decision I made a list for myself and wrote down what would make or break this PhD. I know there are already a thousand lists like these out there, but I wanted to share my take on it anyway. These are, in my opinion, the things that everyone should consider when they are thinking about starting a PhD:

1. The topic

This is an obvious one. If you are going to work on a subject for the next 3-4 years, you better like it. For me, it was also very important that the project would contribute more to the world than ‘just’ knowledge. I’m the type of person that needs to know why I’m doing something. I want to do meaningful work related to a topic I truly care about, otherwise I lose my interest. This is actually something I’ve seen happening around me quite often. PhD students start off super enthusiastic, but when stress starts to build-up, they forget why they wanted to do this in the first place. That inner motivation is something that keeps you going when the going gets tough.

2. Your supervisors

These are the people you will be dealing with on a daily basis. They will teach you what they know, give you feedback, introduce you to relevant people and hopefully, support you whenever you need it. A lot of people want that famous professor as a supervisor. And while that may be beneficial on the one hand as they know a lot, have great contacts, and probably plenty of money for research, they might also not have that much time for you. These people are often super busy, and besides you, supervise 10 other PhD students with whom you have to share the limited time that is available for supervision. This doesn’t have to be the case for everyone though. I preferred to have supervisors that are somewhat in the middle: not the 60-year-old fully established professor, but someone that still gets their hands dirty sometimes, knows the field well, has good contacts and has a nice but not too big group of students. Most importantly, there has to be a click. In the end, you will work with people, not with names.

A good idea is to contact some previous students and ask them about their experience. How are they on a day-to-day basis? What is their supervision style? What’s their availability? I ended up writing an email to one former and one current PhD student, and they gave me some great insight.

3. The location

Now this is something that often ends up somewhere at the bottom of the list, but I think it shouldn’t be. Yes, the topic and your supervisors are very important, but you only spend about 8 hours a day working (hopefully), and the rest of the time you can be out doing things you like. Living somewhere that doesn’t match your personality at all, is a recipe for disaster. I, for example, can not handle cold, rainy and dark days at all. And yes, being from The Netherlands that is kind of a problem, and it is the absolute limit of what I can handle. Moving to Scandinavia would thus be an absolutely terrible idea. Secondly, I really hate being in a place without much nature around. Big cities can be nice for a day or two, but being surrounded by concrete for too long will eventually drive me mad. One thing that does wonders for my mind is the ocean. The sound of the wind and the waves, the sun on my face and the whole beach vibe that goes along with it, is something that always makes me happy.

My dream was therefore to go to Australia: the beautiful nature, crazy animals, friendly people and good weather all mixed together, makes it the perfect place for me. I ended up going to Sydney, and even though it is a huge city, I live in a small coastal suburb where I can escape from the hustle and bustle of CBD life.

4. Your partner, family and friends

This one could actually go with the previous point. If you want to do a PhD and you have a partner, life is a little but more difficult. Unless you find a great PhD near the place you live, you probably end up either having a long-distance relationship, or bringing your partner along with you. The last option is of course the most ideal, but not always possible. If you have to move away from home and your partner can not come with you, think about whether this would work for both of you. If you’re only a few hours apart, you can visit each other quite regularly. In my case, I live a 30+ hour flight away from my girlfriend, so visiting every month is out of the question. Plus, the 8-10 hour time difference makes things even more complicated. Luckily, the plan is for her to come here eventually, so now we just have to bite through the sour apple (as we say in The Netherlands). The same goes for family and friends of course. If you live far away you will inevitably miss some important moments. Can you handle that?

5. Are you ready for it?

This question is also often overlooked. You may like the idea of doing a PhD, but are you ready for it? It’s a big commitment and a big step up from doing a bachelor’s or master’s. And even though if may feel as a logical step after your bachelor’s or master’s, I really discourage to dive head first into a PhD straight after. Take up a different job, do some teaching, try out a job outside academia and get some experience. Grow as a person, put aside some savings and do the things you didn’t have time or money for when you were studying. This advice of course doesn’t apply to everyone, some people might be very much ready. Still, a bit more experience never hurts and definitely makes up for a few ‘lost’ years. I was lucky to get a research assistant position, which gave me the perfect insight into life in academia while working on my skills. I got to work with amazing scientists that taught me a lot of things. I also worked on my time-management skills, got a decent salary, and picked up some hobbies I didn’t make time for when I was studying. I also worked on myself as a person: went to therapy, started meditation, and figured out a work-life balance that works for me. I truly feel that this will make me approach this PhD in a much healthier way than if I had started right after my master’s.

6. Does this PhD match your future career aspirations?

You definitely will learn a lot of things during any PhD, but sometimes a certain job requires certain skills. If your dream job is an office job, it would be good to start a PhD with a lot of focus on for example data analysis, modelling or bioinformatics. If sitting behind your computer all day drives you mad, you might want to pick up some valuable field skills. In marine biology, scuba diving and boating are highly sought-after skills. If your heart starts beating faster every time you see a pipet, then a project that involves a lot of lab work would be your thing. Do you like teaching? Ask your supervisors if there are any opportunities for assisting during courses or maybe mentoring a student. Think about what it is you like to do most, and what kind of skills you need for that. Finding a project that prepares you for that, will make your life easier once you finish.

Going over this list myself made it clear to me that despite some difficulties regarding the distance, this PhD suited me. And to make a long story short: I wrote a proposal for the scholarship, got the scholarship and a few months later I was on a plane to Sydney! Now time will tell whether this list proves to be useful. I will come back to this in a couple of years 😉

To PhD or not to PhD

My friends and family might say I’m obsessed, but I simply say that I love Australia (although they may be right…). Ever since I lived in Adelaide for my master thesis for over half a year, I have been wanting to go back. There’s simply no other place like Australia. So, when I was waiting to hear whether I would get a permanent position at NIOO-KNAW, I also started looking for other jobs; Down Under.

My initial plan was to find a research assistant position. I liked working as a research assistant, and not to brag, but I think I was pretty good at what I did. So, I applied to some positions, all without even making it to the interview stage. One of the biggest hurdles when trying to get a job in Australia is the visa… Unless you already have a visa, it’s really hard to find a job, because this often means that the employer has to sponsor you for a visa with working rights. I will never know, as I never received a reply to my job rejection response emails, but I like to think that this a big reason as to why all my applications were unsuccessful.

One day, I was scrolling on Twitter when a Tweet caught my eye:

Marine plants (!), environmental stress (!!), plant-soil feedbacks (!!!), in AUSTRALIA?! How amazing!! This perfectly combines my expertise and interests! But wait, what? A PhD position?! That was not the plan.

The thought of doing a PhD had crossed my mind before. But during my time at the NIOO, I had seen so many people struggle and get burned out because of their PhD. That’s something I definitely didn’t want. And being pretty perfectionistic, I knew I would be capable of falling into the trap of working too hard, and too much for too long. I mean, I had done it before during my Masters. Let’s just say that when people start asking you whether you are okay, because your face is as pale as a polar bear and the bags under your eyes are about to touch the floor, you know something is off.

I decided not to apply, but the Tweet kept popping up in my mind at random moments: “Is a PhD something for me? Should I do this? The project does sound pretty perfect… But leaving everything I have behind to move to the other side of the world?”. I was super excited and scared as fuck at the same time. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to write an email and see from there. The project sounded super cool, but good supervisors are also key to making your PhD a nice experience. I wanted to meet my potential supervisors first. A couple of weeks later, after having some long internal discussions, I decided to update my CV and send an email with my application.