Cyanobacteria and Misery: The Many Hats of Anna Zakrisson (Women in Science 51)
A large black labrador pushes through the snow, pulling a sledge of scientific equipment to the foot of a glacier while behind him plods a scientist and his determined five year old daughter. They are here, in northern Sweden, to measure the rate of glacial melting. Within a year, he’ll have taught her the Latin classification of all the local flora, and within three he’ll be gone, carried away by cancer.
The girl is Anna Zakrisson, born in 1980 in Stockholm, but who will travel a little bit of everywhere and study a bit of everything on her way to a multi-faceted career that combines research, writing, and intellectual coordination in various shifting quantities. Nothing about her life or work is expected, or easy.
Let’s tally the hardships: A mother who left when she was three to pursue her career. A father who died when she was eight. A youth growing up in the projects of Stockholm (yes, Stockholm has projects). A period of restless wandering. An incident involving head-butting a tram that did not go at all well. Endometriosis. A divorce. In short, enough twists of misfortune to make a Theodore Dreiser character go, “You know, my life’s suddenly not so bad.”
And yet, somewhere in between all the hammerfalls of fate, she managed to study at Cambridge and the Max Planck Institute, specializing in plant research, and to go on to produce a set of fascinating papers on the complex web of ecological interactions surrounding cyanobacteria blooms. This is demanding research that often defies clean hypotheses. One of the issues she investigated centers around cyanobacteria’s role in nitrogen fixation. These organisms have the ability, when useful forms of nitrogen are not abundant, of spending a lot of energy to transform atmospheric nitrogen (N2, of which there’s plenty) into ammonia (NH3).
You’d think that would be an advantage, and it is, so long as nitrogen isn’t readily available in other forms, like nitrates or ammonium ions, but once the nitrogen content starts getting decent, phytoplankton, which grow faster than cyanobacteria, leap into the fray and start squeezing out the cyanobacteria in the race for phosphorous. So, cyanobacteria have to play nasty sometimes. Many of them release toxins into the water, or are of a filamentous form that gums up the mouths and digestive tracts of anything that tries to eat it. If you get a big enough bloom, it can blot out sunlight to lower aquatic layers, lowering overall biological diversity, but at the same time, if you get enough of it, smaller organisms can use it as cover to hide from predators, which aids diversity. Tallying the overall impact of cyanobacteria is a slippery calculus, one that is not at all clarified by other factors like temperature, water depth, nutrient up-churning, seasonal variation, and all the other dancing variables that make field ecological research such a particularly tricky field, demanding the highest rigor in statistical and systemic analysis.
Zakrisson’s studies of cyanobacteria tore down some long held hypotheses about what nitrogen fixation depends on, while providing evidence for the positive effect that this organism eventually has on phytoplankton growth, and is a wonderful example of new revelations leading to magnificent, if frustrating, new complexities. As Zakrisson puts it, “Cyanobacteria are amazing organisms. They can fix nitrogen from the air and so add nutrients to the nutrient poor oceans, enabling life in the oceans. They were also responsible for oxygenating the Earth’s atmosphere. They can however also produce toxins and may poison water deposits and cause a number of other issues. I like that they are such a two-edged sword. The world is complex, never black-and-white.”
Science is not, however, pushed forward by research alone. It needs people to organize its efforts, to sift through its results, and to responsibly communicate its findings to a public that often seems to consider misinterpreting scientific advances as a kind of leisure sport. Any one of those jobs is the stuff of a career, but somehow Zakrisson manages to live in all three worlds simultaneously.
At the Charité University Hospital in Berlin she is a coordinator of vegetative physiology research, which includes trudging through research proposals to decide how to allocate resources, evaluating scientific merit and communicating with prospective researchers. She also works at the peer-reviewed journal Acta Physiologica, helping form their online content, which involves yet more scientific communication with the editors and world-class scientific minds that guide that publication. And then she also has her own site, The Imaginarium dedicated to the responsible popularization of science.
It’s a boggling amount of work to shoulder, one that can only be sustained by her evident love of science, and personal feeling of responsibility for its informed dissemination. In the Internet Age, nothing is so easy as to spread false claims about the purpose and workings of scientific research. From anti-vaccers to anti-climate changers to anti evolutionists, there is a small army with a luscious amount of time on their hands which they decide to spend spreading massively misinformed gut feelings about how they think science works. And at the same time, there are those who sizzle with so much positivistic zeal that they do just as much damage to science by overstating its results, building up expectations that cannot possibly be met. Fighting both those tendencies with nothing save a sober accounting of the data at hand is a tremendously difficult task. Who wants the facts when you can have rocket skateboards and immortality through kale? It can be done, but it takes eloquence and a real passion for the myriad fascinations of science’s steady work, and that’s precisely what Zakrisson and a growing host of fellow responsible science advocates are bringing at last to the hitherto over-zealous blogosphere.
Zakrisson’s diverse career is an interesting glimpse into the world of Science To Be. Just as in every other industry, where rigid single-purpose Company Men are finding themselves ousted in favor of fluid multi-taskers, so in science does it seem to be the case that more and more people take up a spectrum of jobs over the course of their career. Zakrisson has been, in less than two decades of working, a researcher, writer, coordinator, editor, and programmer, not to mention her other titles of mother, martial artist, world traveler, and tram head-butter. For some, that might be intimidating – “What, it’s not enough now to just get good SAT scores and be really handy with a pipette? I have to be able to actually communicate with people?!” But it can also be reassuring, that the web of tasks necessary to the world’s scientific progress has grown so rich that no matter how you get buffeted by life, where you’ll end up is somewhere where you can do some good, and if you’ve got a lifelong curiosity for exploring and communicating the nooks of nature, like Zakrisson, good is only the beginning.
FURTHER READING: Anna Zakrisson recommends The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions by David Quammen and Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker. If you’d like to read one of Zakrisson’s cyanobacteria papers, you can go here and marvel at the wonderful, terrible complexity of puzzling out this organism’s role in the world ecology.