Where were you educated?
I was born in Barcelona, Spain, and studied in a French school in Barcelona until I was 12 years old. I then left with my parents and brother on a sailboat to sail around the world for 8 years. During that period, my brother and I followed our studies by correspondence through the French system. I went back to Barcelona when I was 19 to start my University studies.
I studied biology at the University of Barcelona, Spain between 1992 and 1997.
How did you end up in England?
During the last year of my degree, our teacher in the invertebrates course, Prof Xavier Turón, gave us a lecture about the deep-sea and talked about hydrothermal vents and their associated exotic fauna. It was only a 45 minutes lecture, but I knew then that it was this unexplored and unknown ecosystem that I wanted to study. Xavier Turón put me in contact with Dr Craig Young at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, USA, who conducted a deep-sea summer course with Prof Paul Tyler (Southampton Oceanography Centre, UK). I applied for a small grant to participate in the course, and it was during the course that I talked to Craig Young and Paul Tyler about the possibility of doing a PhD with them. This is how, in October 1997, I started my PhD with Prof Paul Tyler (SOC, UK), Dr Craig Young (HBOI, USA) and Dr David Billett (SOC, UK) in the Southampton Oceanography Centre. I obtained a European Marie Curie grant for a PhD to study the reproductive patterns of deep-sea invertebrates in relation with energy availability in the habitat.
What made you interested in studying the ocean?
Growing up at sea, I knew I wanted to work in an area related to the oceans. I was also interested in biology and research, so the best combination was marine biology. Then, when I was given a tiny insight of the mysteries awaiting in the deep-sea and how much work was to be done to understand these fantastic ecosystems, I knew what I wanted to do!
What do you enjoy about your work?
Doing research is both challenging and rewarding. You decide what you want to do, pose questions about a specific topic, and by doing laboratory and analysis work try to find the answers and move forward our knowledge a little step at a time (a part from some times, when great discoveries are made...but I have not been through such fantastic experience...yet!). I enjoy the variability of everyday work, being in the lab, at sea, doing analyses and writing up the results, presenting the results in conferences, and teaching. I also really enjoy being part of a multidisciplinary team that works on different topics the results of which contribute to a large scientific question. One of the aspects of my work I enjoy the most is going to sea on research cruises.
What are some of the coolest things you get the opportunity to do? The experience of being at sea sampling the deep-ocean is fantastic. Deep-sea cruises are difficult to organize because they are expensive, need specific logistics and depend on the use of high technology equipment and large-scale platforms such as ships. This is why it is so exciting when we have the chance to participate in a research cruise. It is only at sea that you can see how the sampling equipment works and get the samples (animals, sediment, rocks, etc) fresh before they are preserved for future analysis. Working with Paul Tyler and David Billett in the DEEPSEAS Benthic Biology Group at SOC has given me the opportunity to participate in many cruises, some of them with ROVs and submersibles. The dives I did with the submersible Johnson Sea Link (Dr Craig Young, HBOI, USA) in the Gulf of Mexico cold seeps and with the Nautile (Dr Daniel Desbruyères, Ifremer, France) on the hydrothermal vents in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge were simply unique and I consider myself extremely lucky to have done them.. I also had the chance to participate in a spectacular cruise to Antarctica with Dr Craig Smith (Univ. of Hawaii).
What exactly do you study and why is it important?
My main scientific interests lie in understanding the reproductive processes of deep-sea invertebrates and the role of life-history strategies in the ecological adaptation of the populations to their habitat and in driving biogeography. The deep-sea is the largest ecosystem on Earth but one of the least studied. The deep-sea comprises a variety of habitats with specific physical and biogeochemical characteristics. It is one of the largest reservoirs of biodiversity as well as containing a variety of natural resources, both biological and mineral. Understanding the life-history strategies of its fauna is essential to understand the functioning of the ecosystem as a whole. Moreover, industries such as deep-water fishing or oil and gas exploration are rapidly entering deep-water ecosystems as new technologies are developed. The impact of these activities, together with short and long-term environmental changes, is especially important in an ecosystem where many species exhibit slow growth and delayed maturity. Understanding the reproductive patterns of deep-sea species is essential to understand the functioning of the ecosystem and the vulnerability of certain species to both natural and anthropogenic disturbance.
I am also the coordinator of the Census of Marine Life project ChEss, working on the biogeography of deep-sea chemosynthetic ecosystems. These ecosystems are based on the primary production of microorganisms, which use the reduced chemicals from the hydrothermal (or cold seep) fluids as source of energy. These ecosystems are, therefore, sustained by energy from the interior of the Earth, instead of solar energy (photosynthesis) as are all other ecosystems. Vents were only discovered in 1977 in the Galapagos Rift, and the cold seep associated fauna only in 1984 in the Gulf of Mexico, and we know only a very small fraction of all vents and seeps in the world. So we are still in an exploratory phase similar to the major first oceanographic cruises of the 19th Century, but this time have the advantage of using very advanced technology to help us see what lives below the surface.
What have you learned? Discovered?
Since I started my PhD, I have learned a great deal about deep-sea ecosystems and their fauna, how these ecosystems work, and especially, about the life cycles of some species from different habitats, including abyssal plains, hydrothermal vents and cold seeps. I have obtained results showing that the number of eggs produced by deep-sea species can vary depending on the energy available in their habitat, but that the gametogenetic processes that result in the production of eggs and sperm are specific of the species and there seems to be no special adaptations in deep-sea animals. Very recently (March 2005), I had the chance to participate in an exploratory cruise with Prof Chris German (SOC, UK), in which we were looking for the first hydrothermal vents and their associated fauna on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge south of the Equator. We mapped the ridge section between 3ºS and 7ºS, showing the existence of volcanoes and lava flows and found evidence of hydrothermal plumes...that then led us to finding the first vents in the southern Atlantic!
What are some of the challenges you face in your career?
The main challenge all scientists face in their career is finding funding to conduct their research. In the case of deep-sea research, because sampling and experimenting in these remote and extreme habitats is highly expensive and involves complex logistics, obtaining funding seems even harder! But it is all worth it when new projects are approved and you start obtaining your first samples and results. Scientifically, one of the main challenges in my career is to understand the effects of environmental variability on population dynamics, and especially in the life cycle of key species. Another major challenge is to fully understand the biodiversity and biogeography of deep-water chemosynthetic ecosystems at the global scale. For this we need to understand the relationships, both evolutionary and ecological, between all reducing environments, including vents, seeps, large organic falls (i.e. whale falls or sunken wood) and areas of oxygen minima. The task ahead of us is vast at the same time that it is incredibly interesting, exciting and inspiring.
How do you spend your time when you are not investigating deep ocean waters?
When I'm not at sea or in the lab, I'm at home in Southampton spending time with friends or, during holidays, in Barcelona with my family and Spanish friends. One of my favorite things is traveling. I love visiting new countries and enjoy learning from other cultures. Soon, I will move back to Barcelona to continue my work in deep-sea biology and as ChEss coordinator.