Hannah Hartung (née Vossel), Early Career Representative

So here is my story about how I got into diatoms and my experiences, I have made in the last couple of years: I studied Geosciences at the University of Cologne and had a great interest in palaeontology. During my second year, I took a course in micropalaeontology, where we learnt something about foraminifera, radiolarians and of course diatoms. All those organisms are fascinating, so the question is: what kept me going with the diatoms in the end? That is quickly explained: beside their large variety of beautiful ornamentations and shapes, I was taught that some of them have the ability to actively move around with the speed of around 5 µm/s. In this moment I thought: A plant (algae), which is able to move around, having a hardcover shell – how cool is this? I need to know more about those organisms! You might understand my fascination about this fact, once you have seen a culture of Navicula floating around like little boats under the light microscope (little nerd fact here: Navicula comes from the Latin word navis, which means “little boat”).

Around two hours later, I found myself sitting in the library reading all about diatoms. The next super fact about diatoms hit me there: they produce around a quarter of the oxygen existing on Earth – wow! At the same moment, I asked myself quickly: Why do we know, what a tree is, but do not know that diatoms even exist, when leaving school?

So fascinated, I wanted to do something with diatoms in my Bachelor thesis. My micropalaeo-professor was shocked and told me, that I must be crazy as the taxonomy is extremely extensive. Not scared by that, I got some samples from the Bath profile in Barbados, from which once famous Ernst Haeckel described his famous “Handbook of Radiolarians” during his Challenger Expedition. Highly motivated to study the diatoms in this profile, I started to prepare first rock samples in the lab. And here it comes: NOT a single valve was preserved L, but plenty of beautiful radiolarians; so I decided to work with those and my theory in the end was, that the radiolarians might have eaten away the diatoms (?)

Once the Bachelor was done, the master started and with the master comes a master thesis – so the next chance for me to explore diatoms a bit more. I changed to the University of Bonn in October 2010 and quickly become a member of the palaeobotany working group as student assistant. In March 2010, Prof. Dr. T. Litt (my supervising professor and head of the working group) took sediment cores from Lake Kinneret in Israel and was looking for students, who wanted to investigate those a bit more. Here, I saw my chance to look for some diatoms - finally. I had some trouble with slide preparation at the beginning, got in contact with Dr. Jane Reed from the University of Hull (later my second supervisor during my PhD) and finally learnt properly to prepare samples and how to identify the first diatoms. AND in this moment, I quickly started to understand, what my micropalaeo-professor from Cologne meant by “extremely extensive” taxonomy... I opened the famous “green books” from Horst Lange-Bertalot and asked myself, how I ever will distinguish between all those Navicula – which all looked the same for me at this moment.

I made my way through the sediment cores, diatom taxonomy and counting. One day, I googled around the web and crashed by accident into the website from the International Society for Diatom Research – oh there is a Central European Diatom meeting held in Thonon-les-Bains, France. I decided to apply for a travel grant to go to this meeting to present my results from my Master thesis and got it. I went – all alone – to this meeting and gave my first ever presentation on a conference on the last day of the meeting. I could not believe, that in the end, I won the best student presentation award, made several new friends and got to know so many nice and well-known diatomists. I experienced that the diatom community is very open and helpful, and that there seems to be no thinking of competition, which I do appreciate a lot until today! Diatom scientist are very cooperative, always give advice and offer their help. Two things I will never forget: (1) I was standing around alone a bit overwhelmed during the first day – Herman van Dam came to me and started talking with me and asked, if I was ok, who I was and what I am doing with diatoms. This gave me a good feeling and I try to do the same during conferences and icebreaker parties now – maybe you can also try to do so in the future? (2) The conference dinner: the students were placed all together (as so often during this meeting) on one large table. Horst Lange-Bertalot decided that evening to sit with the students, with the words “I know the other folks already – I want to know the future diatomists.” Shortly after this meeting, I became a member of ISDR and there were, of course, many more meetings I have visited…

After my Master was done, I started my PhD entitled “Holocene environmental and climate change in the southern Levant: diatom-based palaeolimnology of Lake Kinneret (Israel)” at the University of Bonn funded by the “Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes”. I continued my work from my master thesis and investigated the fossil and modern diatom flora from Lake Kinneret (Israel) in detail. I do not want to reveal too much about it here at this point, as there might come up a “Diatom of the Month” post as well in the next couple of weeks. 😉  I finished and successfully defended my PhD this year and I am now looking for a Postdoc-position/project to stay a bit longer in science and work with what I love so much – diatoms and inspire (& teaching) future students.

After telling you the story how I got into diatoms, I also want to use the chance to say a few words about Young ISDR and the importance of having a society like ISDR:

The whole idea of possible ECR activities during diatom meetings was born during a poster session at the EGU 2015 in Vienna: I presented my poster next to the poster of Rainer Pienitz, who was the president of the ISDR and organizer of the next ISD meeting in Québec at that time. We discussed the importance of such a forum for young diatomists and agreed that I would try to organize some activities during the upcoming IDS such as a speed-talk session and a small assembly for ECRs. Those activities were a great success and the council of the ISDR agreed that a young diatomist should represent the needs of our generation in the council of the society. I was elected to serve as first ECR in the history of the society – a huge task. Xavier Benito also stood as candidate beside several others for this position. Happily, I could convince him to work with me together on this important task in the future. In Prague the year after, I met Andrea Burfeid Castellanos, who was also quickly convinced to work with us – the moment Young ISDR and its core team was born. All actions followed, e.g. like the construction of the blog page and future IDS activity organisation, would never be so successful without them. I would like to use the chance to THANK YOU Andrea and Xavi that I got the chance to work with you. I was thought early in my life, that a team leader is only as good as its team members - and I had the BEST team members for fulfilling the task as ECR for the society!

Looking back, I think, we have achieved a lot as Young ISDR team in the last couple of years:

  • We created a well-running blog website and a communication network for young diatomists, so they do know that ISDR does exist, inform them about job opportunities and future meetings
  • Speed-talks, ECR-workshops, ECR-discussion meetings are an important part of IDS meetings
  • We negotiated a discount with Koeltz books for ECRs
  • Advertising the ISDR society and its importance

    Young ISDR group picture during the IDS meeting in Berlin, Germany, in 2018

    I am also thinking, that it will be the job of our generation to keep the society alive in the future and that we have a critical role in shaping future diatom-related science as well. In times of climate change debates, we (and also the society) have to raise awareness in the public in the future, how important diatoms are, as they play a major role in the carbon fixing cycle and are important oxygen producers. The impact of climate change on diatom floras living in the oceans is unclear and not predictable at this moment. I have the dream that in the future every child knows, what a diatom is and how they look like.