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“We invest much more time writing scientific publications than making science accessible”

31 de October 2017

Rossella Guerrieri has a PhD in Forestry and Environmental Sciences and has been a post-doc at CREAF since 2016. Her projects are related to the natural cycles of forests and she is a strong advocate of the social impacts of science.

The researcher Rossella taking wooden testimonies of the tulip tree Liriodendron tulipifera to Morgan Monroe (Indiana, USA). Author: Rossella Guerrieri.

The researcher Rossella taking wooden testimonies of the tulip tree Liriodendron tulipifera in Morgan Monroe (Indiana, USA). Author: Rossella Guerrieri.

Reviewing your resume I feel obliged to ask you… Did you really have a project funded by NASA?

It sounds funny, but yes, they are also interested in topics related to forests. The University of New Hampshire, along with one of NASA’s foundations and Scott Ollinger as principal investigador (PI), has awarded me a three-year project to study the role of forest canopies in the water cycle and its connection with the carbon cycle. The truth is that I submitted my application for the project without any expectations, but the reply I received was that they had chosen two finalists and I was one of them. They interviewed me a second time and one morning I woke up to an mail that said “you’re coming to the United States.”

It was a fairly groundbreaking study which combined satellite data data on flows of carbon and energy between the forest canopy and the atmosphere (the Eddy Covariance method). To these results were added chemical analyses of tree rings and isotopes. The truth is that it was an experience that marked a turning point in my career, because I realized that for the detailed study of the forests, an overview of the entire ecosystem was needed.

And is it related to your research here at CREAF?

"We want to show that the transformation of plant nitrogen doesn't only occur in the soil by specialized bacteria, as it is explained in all the ecology textbooks"

Yes, it is connected. I came to CREAF with a grant from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions to continue studying forest canopies, but this time in relation to the nitrogen cycle. My grant is part of the Nitriphyll project, where I work with ecologists Maurizio Mencuccini and Josep Peñuelas. By examining isotopes of oxygen and nitrogen and the atmospheric concentrations of nitrogenous compounds, we want to show that the transformation of plant nitrogen doesn’t only occur in the soil by specialized bacteria, as it is explained in all the ecology textbooks, but it also occurs in the tree canopies.

You are saying that the forest canopies also transform nitrogen? With what mechanism?

Yes, they do, and also by bacteria! Right now we are looking at what percentage of nitrogen (nitrate, NO3, to be specific) that we find in vegetation has been produced by bacteria living in leaves and comparing that with the percentage produced by soil bacteria. This way we can refine the detail of the nitrogen cycle, something for which it may seem that everything is already known, but there are actually pieces still missing.

In addition, for the first time we will analyze the genetic information of the whole bacterial community living in the canopy in a snapshot image using a technique called metagenomics. We also suspect that this could result in the discovery of new species living in the trees.

Exactly where are you carrying out this study? In the Mediterranean region?

No, this study covers a much wider region. We have 11 sampling sites, ranging from Sweden to the Mediterranean. These sites are included in a monitoring network called ICP-Forests centering on the two most common European tree species, the common beech and Scots pine. Our intention is to have a European-scale approach for measuring the evolution of forests and their natural cycles with respect to climate change and nitrogen contamination of the atmosphere. Here in Catalonia, with the researcher Anna Ávila, we monitor a plot in Montseny natural park called La Castanya.

Rainwater collector under the oak canopies (Quercus ilex) in La Castaña. This water was used for experiments with isotopes and genetic analyzes. Author: Anna Avila.

Rainwater collector under the oak canopies (Quercus ilex) in La Castanya. This water was used for experiments with isotopes and genetic analyzes. Author: Anna Avila.

And you think that this will have an impact on society?

I strongly hope that it will. Increasingly, European projects require you to measure the impact of your research on society, and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie scholarships among them. In my project, specifically, we want to highlight and publicize the fact that tree canopies not only are important for water and carbon cycles, but that they are also a key part of the cycles of nutrients such as nitrogen. It’s not just a bunch of leaves!

In addition, if we sequence the bacteria that live in the canopies, we will be able to know where they come from and if their spread has implications for health human. Scientists live and breathe science beginning the moment they get out of bed, not just when they are at work. Even in our personal relationships sometimes we have to agree not to talk about science.  It seems impossible that we aren’t helping to spread it.

But not everyone agrees with that. Researchers still have a long way to go to improve dissemination of their work.

"We still exist in a system in which the main thing influencing your career is the impact factor of your publications"

Yes, it’s true, and honestly this is probably our own fault. We spend a lot more time on the purely scientific publications than being creative or making science easy and accessible. We still exist in a system in which the main thing influencing your career is the impact factor of your publications, and it isn’t often taken into account that we are in debt with society at large which pays for public research with their taxes.

And is the general public also responsible for this? Do you think that the average person is interested in science?

Yes, there is interest, but in general people are not very engaged. Beginning in grade school, we should be incentivized to learn to transmit information with clear messages: through specific projects, oral presentations, etc. Children and young people are potential science communicators. In terms of those receiving the information, we need to encourage and teach people to ask questions, to begin the dialogue which improves communication between scientists and non-scientists, because normally people decide not to participate. I think that people generally think that they will not understand you anyway, because they don’t scientific trainin, and we also explain things in terms which are too technical.

Yes, sometimes scientific language is…

Yes, it is important that we express ourselves with intention of being understood. Personally, I am a big fan of certain initiatives such as Science Festival in Edinburgh where I participated during my postdoc.  At festivals such as these scientists explain their projects in an accessible manner and this makes people feel like they are a part of science.  You can just see the excitement in them!

Pine forest roefer (Pinus sylvestris) in Thetoford in the United Kingdom (one of the sample sites included in Nitriphyll). Author: Rossella Guerrieri.

Scots pine’s forest (Pinus sylvestris) in Thetoford in the United Kingdom (one of the sample sites included in Nitriphyll). Author: Rossella Guerrieri.

And when it comes to communicating science, does being a woman have an influence?

Not in communication, but in academia… Honestly, it is still very difficult to move upward.  Research grants need to address the gender issue in other ways, to avoid the kind of situation that a project hires a woman just because they need to fill the “lack of women” gap to meet requirements.  We have resumés which are good enough to be selected for merit and the great ideas which we can contribute.

You’ve had problems of this sort?

In fact in this respect I have been very lucky. I don’t think that I was selected for any of my scholarships just for being a woman, or at least I’m not aware of it, and the people that I have worked with have valued my ideas and abilities. However, it is true that sometimes I found myself in strange situations, for instance hearing comments that a woman “digging a hole in the ground” to obtain forest samples was not a feminine image. This is because the forestry world is normally associated with men, in science women are imagined wearing a lab coat doing some kind of experiment. Obviously, it’s not this way at all, and at CREAF we have plenty of examples!

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Verónica Couto Antelo
Tècnica de Comunicació del CREAF des de març del 2016. Graduada en Biologia (UB, 2015) i Màster en Comunicació Científica, Mèdica i Ambiental (BSM-UPF, 2016).
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