COOL DINOFLAGELLATES—By Solveig Granberg
Updated: Feb 4
Stijn De Schepper is a Paleoceanographer conducting research at the Bjerknes Climate Institute in Bergen. Stijn studies dinoflagellate cysts, a type of sea plankton fossil, and has recently ventured in the field of ancient DNA to collect information about past Arctic sea ice. With support from the European Research Council, he has gathered a team of paleoceanographers and molecular ecologists to develop and use ancient DNA as a new tool for documenting and understanding past sea ice change and climate change. Solveig is a textile artist and a masters student at the Art academy in Bergen, with a passion for the ocean. They met in november of 2020 to talk about his research and what drives him to always keep diving deeper into his projects, as well as the beauty that can be found in the inaccessible world he studies.
SOLVEIG: What made you become a scientist?
STIJN: I think it comes from an interest in finding out things. I actually started working for a dredging company, and what they make canals or harbours deeper for example. For the six months I was there, the company worked on making artificial islands in the shape of a palm tree in Dubai. We removed sand from the seafloor in one place, and then dumped in another location to make an artificial island. I realized that that would not be my long term career.
We were doing geological coring and drilling, and I noticed that I wanted to find out more. I was not interested in where the sand was, I was more interested in how the sand got there. Does it have anything to do with sea level change? Does it have anything to do with climate? How does this all work? And those kinds of questions are not something one can answer in this job.
I was very lucky to get a Gates Cambridge scholarship at The University of Cambridge to pursue a PhD. This shaped me into being and becoming a researcher and work on projects that I’m interested in. At this point, this happens to be sea ice and climate, but it could have been something very different as well. So I guess the main reason why I'm a scientist, is that I am interested in things and I want to try and understand them, and develop new tools that can help us understand.
Why are the Dinoflagellates the perfect subject for your research?
For my master thesis at the University of Ghent I had a very inspiring professor in structural geology. This course taught me how to think about how rocks and sediments are organized and linked together. I did fieldwork one summer which was great, doing geological mapping. Afterwards, I needed to do lab work at the university, and I had not really thought about what that would be. He said, “Here are the samples you collected, there is the lab, now you dissolve the rocks and extract all the microfossils in there.” My first reaction was, “What? Did I sign up for that?”
Another professor in the group worked with Dinoflagellates, and I started to see their potential for climate reconstructions, but my first steps were more related to biostratigraphy (relating different geological units to each other based on the fossil content). The most common microfossil group when you're doing paleoclimate or paleoceanographic research is actually foraminifers, but there was nobody in Belgium doing that. So I guess we found a niche in Belgium for looking at this uncommon fossil group. It happened to be the expertise of a professor, who built up that field of research in Ghent.
In that sense, I didn't really choose the Dinoflagellates, but when I got in touch with them, and when I came to learn about them, I realized there's a lot you can do with them. Dinoflagellate cysts are in some respect better than other fossil groups in the high latitudes and the cold polar areas. There you don't find so many foraminifers, so one needs to look at other groups. So it was a gradual process that started by chance.
And what is the goal or desired outcome of the research you are doing now?
What I really would like to do, is to get a much better understanding of how we can reconstruct sea ice. It's a very difficult thing to do, because it's frozen water that is in the ocean only a certain amount of time. It is already very tricky to monitor this today and over the last decades when we have satellite observations. But if you want to go further back in time, we really have very few tools to understand the role of sea ice in the climate system.
So to put this in context, the field of paleoceanography is very young. It is not like medicine or law that have been practiced for centuries. The first paleoceanography studies are from the 60s and 70s. So there are a lot of things in the climate system that we haven't really grasped or investigated in detail. For sea ice, there are very few tools to document the geological records, and this is exactly what our project is about, making new tools for sea ice reconstructions.
Do you think things change quickly in your field of work?
Speed in geological science doesn't really match up very much. I think that we couldn't have done this project 10-15 years ago, because the techniques were not there. And if they were, they were too expensive. We have just gotten to a point in time when you can start to apply new molecular techniques to a field like paleoceanography. It will probably not move fast, but hopefully in a few years from now, at the end of the project, I hope to have some new working proxies or at least have demonstrated that we can use ancient DNA for sea ice research. That's the main goal.
But even then, we may have developed something or shown a path of doing things, there will come a new phase of criticism about the methods. There is a typical process for a proxy to go through; from first very optimistic to criticism and pessimism, when the confidence in the proxy goes down. At the end of that process the community arrives at a plateau where you have a workable, realistic proxy. So it's a long process, and proxy development is something that will always take maybe 10-15 years to get to the right place. The proxies that were developed in the 70s are now considered very standard and easy to measure. But for DNA, that is not the case just yet. So we have to look forward to that in the future.
So I guess patience is a very important quality to have in your work?
Being a geologist, timescale is something you deal with every day. The samples that we work with, the samples that you saw in our lab were around 130 000 years old. They have been here for 130 000 years, and we're only bringing them up now, so we have to deal with this urgency and patience all the time. This project I am working on now deals with the Late Quaternary, and we don't go further back in time than a few hundreds of thousand years. How strange this may sound, this is still a relatively short time scale in geological history. The samples I worked on for my masters were around 430 million years old...
Is creativity an important tool in your work?
Yes. Creativity comes into play quite a bit for working with geology and getting your research project funded. It is always good if you can look at a problem from a different angle than everyone else. But I would not call myself a creative person in an artistic sense. I can't draw, paint or anything like that. So artistic creativity I don't have, but creativity to connect different fields together, think outside the box is a very valuable skill to have.
What is the most exciting or interesting part of your work?
It's basically just being able to dive into a subject and get to the bottom of it. And trying to understand the datasets that you generate. At this point in my career, I have less of those fun parts, and more organizational work. The fun I get now is by talking to my PhD students and colleagues and trying to understand the data that they generated. It is really great to be able to guide someone to become independent researchers.
And also just trying to communicate what we do in a way that people can understand it. My writing style has changed a lot from being extremely detailed and descriptive, to being much more to the point. It's a technique you can learn I think, maybe it's like when you paint or draw and applying a certain technique might get the message across the easiest.
At this point I had officially ended the interview, but luckily, I had not turned off the recorder. We started to talk about looking at things through the microscope, and then specifically how Stijn enjoys the beauty of a perfectly preserved dinoflagellate cyst fossil.
I actually think that Dinoflagellates look cool. Some are very pretty and I think they are much more interesting to look at than the popcorn shapes of foraminifers (sorry to my “Foram'' colleagues). Some of the dinoflagellate cysts haven’t changed their shape in millions of years, so if I showed you one from today and one from five million years ago, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. And this is in a world where climate is evolving and went through major ice ages as well as warmer times. Humans didn't look like we do now five million years ago, so in some places the evolutionary changes are very rapid, and sometimes it seems like nothing changes at all. It looks like some of the dinoflagellates cracked the code and know what the optimal shape is to live happily in the ocean, and then they just stay like that for millions of years. But while some of the Dinoflagellates are really pretty, others look pretty dull too.
Do you have a favourite type of Dinoflagellate?
I do. I will show it to you and tell you why it looks so pretty. It's a very simple one, with the fancy name Melitasphaeridum choanophorum. It's round, but it has processes that are hollow, which end on a platform. At the edges of that platform, there are these tiny little spikes. So if you look at it from the right angle, from the top, it looks like a sun.
Yeah, like tiny little suns surrounding a bigger one.