Dr. Brigitte Ebbe

Where were you educated?
I was educated at the University of Hamburg, Germany, where I studied biology, was awarded my Master's degree and later my Ph.D. in Marine Biology.

How did you become interested in the ocean?
I have always loved the sea, probably from childhood when we spent our summer vacations at the shore. When you have emotional ties like that, it is probably easy to focus your interests on the ocean, as I did, during my student years. It must be something in my blood, too. One of my uncle's was a sea captain, and there were whalers in my mother's family.

What do you study and why is it important?
The overarching theme of my research is biodiversity, and my special animal group is the polychaetes (bristle worms). I am interested in their distribution on and within the seafloor. This work is important because polychaetes represent about half of what lives in any benthic community, at least in the size class I work with, which is macrofauna whose size runs between 0.5 mm to a few centimeters. If we know how many species are in any given habitat, such as deep-sea basins, their distributional patterns, then we can begin to understand what regulates these patterns. With this knowledge, we can begin to understand how the ecosystem seafloor works and how we can exploit and/or protect it in the best possible way.

What do you enjoy about your work?
What I like most about what I do is the diversity of tasks and the sense of novelty and adventure that comes with studying a system that is hidden from view. As a systematist, I am at the hub of biological sciences because everybody who works in any way with animals needs to know what species he or she is dealing with, which provides me with opportunity to work with many different kinds of scientists aside from my immediate colleagues. I also like what I am doing because describing or re-describing species includes drawing animals well enough that everybody can recognize a specimen at hand, which adds an aesthetic and artful dimension to science for me.

What are some of the challenges you face?
In a nutshell, my challenges are scarcity of time and money. Time is always a prime commodity because one of the things I do as a systematist is describe new species. This is a very time consuming business because not only do I have to look at as many specimens as possible of a potential new species in order to get a complete impression of its characterstics and their variability, but also I have to study the literature extensively to make sure that my new species is really new. To secure sufficient funding for this type of work, which is somewhat unspectacular to the non-specialist, has become increasingly difficult.

What have you learned and what do you hope to learn?
I have learned how benthic infaunal communities, especially the polychaetes, differ according to depth and the geographical setting of a study area. I hope to learn why this is so and what factors are responsible for the enormous variety of species, communities and habitats.

How do you spend your spare time when not studying the ocean?
I unwind while pulling weeds or planting something in the garden; singing in two church choirs -- one large and the other a small vocal ensemble -- reading all sorts of fiction and non-fiction (the thicker a book, the better), being with my family, and entertaining my two Persian cats.