Lisa Roepke: Observations and Actions – Many marine biologists have different facets

By Lisa Roepke.

Hi my dear ocean colleagues, lovers and guardians out there! It is a pleasure to introduce myself. But how? I could call myself so many things because I had the freedom to become whatever I wanted and was interested in. If I had to nail it, it would probably be “creative independent stubborn force of nature”. My friends know why. I’m an Aquarius and most of what they say is true.

My career path was pretty much set by the time my parents took me to Florida when I was 2 years old. Being born in Hamburg and spending my youth in Germany has never made me feel like a German. The times abroad and my partly Scottish family have shaped me much more than anything else. My dad is a fisheries biologist and he did his very best in introducing me to the tropical marine world very early. I loved water ever since I was an unborn human in my mum’s belly (she keeps telling me I didn’t want to get out). And everytime I hear her saying that I think to myself “yeah, well it’s cozy and warm”. Ok. Do I sound weird already? Did you ever take a swim in the soft warm waters of Mahé, Seychelles? You don’t want to get out. I would stay in forever until someone tells me to get out before my skin comes off. Haha.

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Photo of me in Florida back in 1995. (photo credit: my dad)

Coming back to Germany in the mid 90’s and starting classes in German school was not easy for me. I was an immigrant with the same nationality as everyone else but a totally different behavior. My parents were asked to see the teacher since I danced on the classroom’s tables and apparently showed some sort of hyperactive behavior. “Well”, my parents said, “you have to treat her as if she is new to this country and culture”, which was no excuse for improper behaviour. And certainly, yes. Many of my friends in Florida had Hispanic roots and life over there was different and made me adapt to it. And sometimes I miss living in subtropical and tropical climates but one thing that is more important to me is my family and tradition.

School years, except the time in which I found myself bound to music and singing in choirs and bands, were no fun years. I was learning because I knew I had to and wanted to achieve something. But I never really knew what. Having talents in many things is good and bad at the same time. What always fascinated me were my hobbies: singing, playing drums, arts & crafts, swimming, and photography. No big surprise that the best grade in maths I got was for geometry. Arts are one important aspect in my life, which still fascinate me and in which I can process my experiences, memories and impressions. I started working on acrylic and resin paintings and selfmade jewelry in 2017 more intensively and got quite some positive feedback. I ran some exhibitions for my art pieces and photographs and will try to keep going and improve even more, parallel to my studies and professional career path. Friends asked me to do workshops in my flat which has one room reserved for my creativity only. My website www.photabulust.de is under construction at the moment and will also change to another domain name.

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Resin painting ( top left) and resin necklace pendant ( top right). Acrylic painting by pouring the colors (bottom).

However, back in those school days, I was good in philosophical questioning and analyzing of texts and books. That is certainly one of my strong talents and something my mum has taught me ever since. To be critical, realize pro’s and con’s, and to think outside the box. I love to observe and analyze. Something, which I can do in photography and science. Before science starts, you need to have a creative idea on what to examine and this one is formed by observations (either something you saw or read or even felt). And before you take a photo, you need to know what is special about the setting by observation and if something appears to be very unique or simply beautiful you want to freeze this moment.

The moment I found myself in the middle of a crisis and was absolutely sure that people needed to do something about it, was during my 6-weeks fieldwork trip on the Seychelles for my Bachelor’s thesis. Our professor took us to Mahé and taught us methods in coral reef monitoring. Corals were good looking (at least back then and compared to average Caribbean reefs today), but we understood quickly, which other threats were waiting to destroy the corals. Fishermen hunting with dynamite, baby sharks being sold on the market and hotel construction and wastewater disposal in front of our eyes. Finding something so colorful and pristine as a coral reef and being confronted with all the threats at the same time made me feel passionate about tropical corals. Of course, it would have been wrong to blame the locals but I knew instead, that the observations I made, had to be carried along my way.

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A Seychellois boy testing my underwater camera for selfies. (photo credit: his, obviously)

I continued with a Master in “International Studies in Aquatic Tropical Ecology” in Bremen, Germany. I knew that I wanted to continue working in coral reef ecology, foremost in coral reproduction and restoration. Coincidentally, I got in contact with the NGO Secore (Sexual Coral Reproduction) International and a 8-months fieldwork trip on the Island of Curaçao laid ahead of me. I was thrown into “cold” water and learned quickly to dive and work underwater at the same time. The experiments took all my energy reserves but for sure I knew that I was doing the right thing and the best part was, that I did not feel the pain but was motivated every day by doing something really meaningful. We looked at brain coral settlers and were the first people to date who grew the species Colpophyllia natans from gametes to larvae in the lab. Those larvae settled onto substrates and were transplanted into different reef habitats and monitored for survival and growth. I developed strong emotions for the corals and wanted to make sure that they survived. A few years later I saw a photo showing one of the settlers which had grown in the wild and tears ran down my face. This little fella had made it. I felt the effort paid off.

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Me, placing the substrates with coral settlers along a transect line. (photo credit: Johannes Höhn)
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A few weeks old brain coral settler in between crustose coralline algae on a substrate.

By knowing and observing that corals have to cope with many threats, solutions on how to make life easier for them are in focus of many scientists today. Some experts are looking into cultivation of thermal tolerant corals, others are trying to find methods for the reduction of surrounding threats. One of my research interests for my PhD is to look at algae, which either support or hinder coral larvae and settlers from growing. So many questions have been unanswered and I am grateful for knowing that the scientific community is putting more effort into tackling these questions to find answers.

Now, being an adult and having just started with my PhD in marine biology, I feel that many facets of me are more matching with the people I surround myself with. I realized, that many of my friends and colleagues have very much in common with me. Creativity and a dozen of hobbies are nothing special to us. We celebrate the opportunities in life, which were given to us. We are free and that is the most important thing. But this freedom is not easy to achieve. Jobs are scarce, competition is high and salary is bad. But maybe that is the price for living this life. I am not OK with this, though. In times of climate crisis and activism, scientists need to speak out and engage themselves in public outreach. Who, if not us, should be better in charge of this? We have the data, we have the knowledge and we need to communicate ourselves to different stakeholder groups out there. Society will only understand, if we formulate our knowledge so everyone can truly understand. I try to take action in this. I’ve been in local newspapers, TV, radio and public events. Even if journalists sometimes get the message wrong or want to get it wrong, it is still important to show we’re there and we care! So, I want to encourage every scientist to get the word out for debate since the media are flooded with false or overemphasized stories and it is our duty to provide information which are based upon good quality work. Times of ignorance and isolation are over. Confrontation is what we need.

For information and photo footage visit me on instagram: @lisa_roepke and for my arts @lisa_roepke_arts.

For more on tropical marine science, check out: https://www.leibniz-zmt.de/en/.

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