Real Scientists is splashing around South Africa this week with Sandra Boitumelo Phoma (@Sandra_Phoma), an Ocean Microbial Ecologist and PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria. We chatted with Sandra about her work, her motivation, and her activism.
Welcome to Real Scientists! How did you get into ocean ecology?
I was always fascinated by microbes. They have an ability to occupy any environmental space. I was more fascinated about what they are getting up to in the deep oceans. My love for discovery lead to my appreciation of the ocean and I vowed to be an ocean activist.
I am passionate about the ocean. Although I cannot swim, I’ve always been fascinated about its ability to support life! All our oceans are currently under threat of pollution and warming. I’d like to contribute my expertise and empathy towards a sustainable ocean for all.
What does microbial ecology involve?
By general definition, a microbial ecologist is a scientist who studies the interaction among microorganisms (all organisms that cannot be seen with a naked eye) and the biogeochemical processes they perform in any environment. This study area is multidisciplinary. For instance, one needs to have an understanding of microbiology, biochemistry, ecology and, in my case oceanography.
Fascinating! What are you working on right now?
My work is specifically based on determining ‘who’ lives in the ocean, ‘what’ they are doing and ‘how’ they contribute to enabling the ocean to sustain marine life and mitigate climate change processes. This work is crucial as microbes are abundant throughout the ocean depth and in the seafloor. They are also the base of the ocean food web and capable of biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen, iron, phosphorus and others. By combining oceanographic variables (e.g. effect of ocean currents and nutrient concentrations) with sequencing data, we are able to infer important functional processes and the environmental factors affecting microbial communities and ecosystem function. This snapshot has provided insight into microbial community diversity and functionality for ongoing monitoring of the Southern Ocean, an area subject to significant environmental change due to climate change.
What motivates you about your work?
My work focuses on the unseen majority, tiny microbes that are still a wonder to many. These tiny creatures provide so many ecosystem services and are working hard to ensure our oceans remain productive. For instance, every second breath we take, is provided by ocean microorganisms. Knowing who they are, and what they do in the oceans could open up ways we can use their beneficial bio-products for health and green industries.
What do you get up to when you’re not at sea or in the lab?
I’m an All-Atlantic Ocean Youth Ambassador, representing South Africa. We are 23 young scientists from 15 countries that lie in that Atlantic Ocean. Our aim is to promote ocean engagement to our communities through ocean literacy, creating tools to promote green tourism and by tapping into our cultural heritage and entertainment to reach as many people as we can.
Also, I love Beyoncé? I’m obsessed with Netflix and getting my nails done. I love to travel and get my hair done. However, getting some sleep trumps everything!
Sandra Boitumelo Phoma, welcome to Real Scientists!