The Sideshow: Charlotte Robinson Part 1

Charlie and I are sitting in a quiet corner of the UTS tower building, something that has recently become a little bit tricky to find given the return of the undergrads. It’s a funny switch to being a post-grad, we muse as we settle in with our coffees and my handy smart phone recording app. It’s kind of halfway between being a full time worker and student; you’re neither one nor the other.

I feel a little weird talking like this with my friend; like I’m a journo with a tape-recorder. The second I open my mouth however the illusion is shattered.

“So can you tell us a bit about your background? Like, education-wise.”

Charlie smiles, “I guess I was a rather enthusiastic high school student who loved science.”

Charlie started out having no idea what she wanted to do at University. She, like everyone else, always had a desire to be a Marine Biologist but decided it was too popular and settled on Forensic Chemistry. After a year she had a bit of a re-think.

“…in the end I got to thinking… this isn’t what I want to wake up to on Monday morning.

“I had a lecture in one of my subjects called the Biosphere, from someone who used to be in C3. He was a post-doc who was doing research on sea ice algae. He was talking a little bit about Climate Change and the impact it would have, particularly sea temperature warming, and I was just fascinated by what he was talking about.”

So she changed career trajectories, back to Marine Biology. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tinkering with one of the instruments Charlie uses called a FFRf
Tinkering with one of the instruments Charlie uses called a FFRf

There’s a pause and I jump in with an off-the-cuff question, something I said I wouldn’t do then promptly forgot about. Oops.

“So what was your honours project all about?”

Which actually completely overrides my next question, as Charlie’s honours project was one of the sort that ended up inspiring her PhD project. (This potentially tells you a bit about the type of student she is). And so we launch into discussing her research and if you listen to the recording, I swear the speed at which she’s talking picks up a notch.

“It was looking at phytoplankton. These are microscopic plant cells that live in the oceans, and rivers and lakes as well, but I’m more interested in those that are in the Oceans. They produce 50% of our oxygen and they’re the guys that gave us the Earth’s atmosphere oxygen in the first place. They also drive the food chain so whales and fish eat something, and they eat something that eventually eats the phytoplankton. They’re the real ‘pushers’ in the chain.”

“So kind of like the Krill in Finding Nemo?” I ask.

“Kind of, yeah.”

Charlie’s work focused on formations of phytoplankton deep in the ocean. These little dudes need a large amount of light in order to grow but they can be found in areas where very little light reaches them. The big questions here for her are why are they there? Is it because of the masses of nutrients? How are they surviving without the light?

And her PhD work?

“I’m still interested in learning more about Phytoplankton and particularly where they get their energy from and how they can use the energy available.”

Have you ever wondered why the ocean can be different shades of blue depending on where you are? Well Charlie’s work is kind of related to this – she calls them ‘optical niches’.

“The waters closer to coastlines in particular are what we would call ‘greener waters’… they can be browner if you’ve got a lot of stuff washing off the land. (The Oceans are) really clear, blue waters and light can travel very deep throughout the water column as well. It’s a completely different climate both in the darkness of the light and also with the colour.”

Light is especially important for phytoplankton as it’s where they get their energy. Different colours give you different wavelengths of light and scientists think that each wavelength has a different amount of energy available for their use. In the end, the light ‘partitions’ the phytoplankton niches, or you find different species of phytoplankton in different “optical niches” using different energy to produce the same biomass. At least this is what her thesis is trying to prove anyway.

On the boat!
On the boat!

So why is this important? Well it’s all about these things called ‘biogeochemical cycles’. If we were to disrupt a vital elemental cycle, we’d be “in a bit of a pickle”. Phytoplankton produce up to 50% of our oxygen but they can also draw carbon dioxide back from the atmosphere and cycle really important nutrients. A popular buzzword that’s being thrown around our office at the moment is this idea of “blue carbon”. Basically this is any carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere by marine and freshwater organisms and transferred into biomass. Charlie makes it pretty clear that protecting these organisms is vital for sustaining life in the face of Climate Change. We need to understand how they function in order to make sure the cycle is not disrupted.

“That’s sort of the end point; I want to determine how changes in the colour of the light affect the kind of production of carbon biomass by phytoplankton. It’s all sort of linked in a cycle.”

Pretty cool huh? If you want to read some more about these little guys, Charlie’s got some recommendations that I’ll list for you below. Have a look – they’re really interesting.

Part two will be up soon!

For more information, check out: 

UTS School of the Environment facebook page: Charlie’s loaded some awesome photos from her research cruises!

Words in mOcean: Brilliant blog by PhD student David Aldridge on all things marine science-y

And if you have access to journals through your Library websites…

“The Ocean’s Invisible Forest” – Paul Falkowski, 2002 (Scientific American, 287, 54-61,)

“Ocean Science: The power of phytoplankton” – Paul Falkowski, 2012 (Nature, 483, S17-S20) 


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