Post provided by Renske Jongen

of Rainbow Research the series returns to the British Ecological Society to celebrate Pride Month 2022! These special posts promote visibility and share stories from STEM researchers belonging to the LGBTQIA2S + community. Each post relates to one of the themes represented by the colors on the Progress Pride flag (Daniel Quasar 2018). In this post, Renske Jongen shares her journey on the road to studying seagrass and their underground microbiome at the University of Sydney.

About me and my research

There I was and my best friend, sitting in the bushes with a dead mouse in front. Are we sure he is dead? Would we really do that? Yes, we were, and it ended up being gossip among the parents of the kids in my class.

The weird kid at school? Oh yes, he was me. Instead of playing with dolls or Barbie, as most young girls do, I spent most of my time in the bushes looking for animals. Armed with a jar, a magnifying glass, and a field guide for animals in Europe, I was determined to find all the animals listed in that book. The date of viewing and anything special I noticed was carefully noted in a notebook. My desire to learn more about nature went so far that I even buried dead animals I found, only to collect and study their skeletons later (unfortunately I never found any bones behind.). So I ended up with that dead mouse I found. Only this time I would not bury her, I wanted to study her anatomy. My best friend and I decided it was a good idea to open that one of mine and see what it looked like from the inside. I told you, I was weird.

Left: in the butterfly garden. Right: care for stray cats during holidays in Spain. Credit: Renske Jongen.

Luckily, my weirdness didn’t stop me much from making friends. I also had parents who stimulated my interest in nature. With my father, I spent my lunch breaks at school catching frogs from the pond in the nearby forest, and my mother allowed me to keep all kinds of animals as pets. Ranging from cats and birds, to African albino lizards and frogs with claws. She taught me to treat plants and animals with care and respect. Many weekends were spent washing cars to raise money for the WWF, or collecting signatures to stop the wildlife trade. It may not be a surprise that I became a vegetarian at the age of 10 because loving animals and eating them at the same time made no sense to me. By the way, it still is not so, and I became vegan a few years ago.

At the age of four I became convinced that I wanted to become a veterinarian. Later when I chose my bachelor program, I realized that studying biology suited me better. I wanted to know how nature works and save animals from extinction.

I will never forget Frederieke Wagner-Cremer, a professor at the University of Utrecht. She was the first professor during my bachelor studies who showed me that women in science can be inspiring AND funny. She has the worst sense of humor and during her lectures most of the discussions are about environmental change. Since that course, this has been the central theme of all the research projects I have worked on. She explained how interactions between different organisms can change dramatically in response to climate change. For me this was really interesting; Studying these different responses to climate change can help us understand which organisms are able to adapt to climate change and which may be in trouble.

Therefore, for my master, I ended up studying the winter moth seasonal time as well as fish behavior in response to climate change. Shortly after graduating I started working as a research assistant at the Dutch Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), working on plant-soil interactions. Working here made me realize that if I really wanted to save those animals I wanted to save as a young girl, the best way to do that is by preserving or restoring their habitat. And to do that, you need to know how that system works.

Seaweed growing in Chowder Bay near the Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences (SIMS). The water was a bit turbid after all the rain of the past months. Photo by Renske Jongen.

And here I am doing just that. For my doctorate, I moved from the Netherlands to Australia to study the interactions between seagrass and groundwater microbes in the context of climate change. Seaweeds are marine flowering plants that evolved from terrestrial plants and then returned to the sea about 140 million years ago. You can call them the ‘whales’ of the plant kingdom. They are extremely important because they support many other marine organisms by providing food or shelter, such as sea turtles and dugongs. They also protect our shores from storms, block plastic particles and seize large amounts of carbon. Unfortunately, sea urchins are not doing very well in many places. In fact, we are losing an area the size of 20,000 football fields worldwide each year since the 1980s as a result of stressors such as coastal development and climate change. You do not hear so much about it compared to the loss of coral reefs or rainforests, but these important herbs are actually one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Many efforts are being made to preserve and restore seagrass meadows, but often have only limited success.

Interestingly, most restoration efforts have focused solely on improving aboveground conditions such as water purity, ignoring what is happening underground, in sediment. For terrestrial plants we have long known that soil and soil microbes play an important role in plant health. Not much is known about the importance of groundwater microbes for seagrass, especially not in the context of environmental change.

Thinking hard during my first doctoral experiment at the Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences (SIMS).

For my PhD, I am studying these interactions between seagrasses and groundwater microbes, and I see how these interactions change with climate change. If we know which microbes and which sediment conditions help seagrass do better, then we can use that knowledge to improve restoration or monitoring techniques. I hope my work will yield some tangible results that will help with just that.

My identity and what pride means to me

There are two main things that make up my identity: being vegan and lesbian. Although these two things look different (being vegan is a choice, being queer is definitely not), they actually have a lot in common. The connection between identifying as non-heterosexual and living a plant-based life is that both do not fit into the world view of society as it is now. Because heterosexuality and eating meat are seen as normal AND natural thing. Therefore, pride for me means challenging and normalizing identities and practices outside of social norms. I do not necessarily think being queer or vegan should be celebrated. Just being open about it, I hope to open the eyes of people around me to things that might seem ‘different’ to them. I want to help create a society that respects and embraces different groups of people and extends it to different species.

For this reason, I chose the ‘blue’ color of the Pride Flag, which signifies ‘harmony’ as the best reflection of me and my research. After all, everything in life is about combining all of our different and competitive needs in such a way that the whole system works.

I was lucky to grow up in a non-religious family and in a country like the Netherlands where people are usually quite open-minded. I have never had a big exit. After many years of dating men, I fell in love with a woman. Then I realized that I preferred women over men and so on. So it should be for everyone. Unfortunately, the acceptance of homosexuality in society is often lacking, despite major changes in the rights of LGBTQ + persons worldwide. The same goes for animal rights or environmental change: we have to agree that something needs to be done, but current changes in society are happening very slowly. I believe the world can thrive if we all had a little more understanding and respect for every human, animal and plant that is there.

You can learn more about Renske and her research at Tweet she too Web page.

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