Marco Cantonati – Elected Council Member Interview

Marco Cantonati and diatoms
Visit at the University of Bologna, Kalina Manoylov and Rosalina Stancheva

Visit at the University of Bologna, professors Kalina Manoylov and Rosalina Stancheva

Marco Cantonati’s path to diatoms was a meandering one, but always lay close to zoology. He started in Pavia (in the Northern Italian Floodplain) at the Institute of Animal Ecology studying zooplankton. Still now he is sitting in the old Zoology Institute of the University of Bologna. His neighbours are marine ecologists studying corals, although he works with diatoms. This may somehow acknowledge the unique metabolic diversity of protists in general and diatoms in particular that leads them to be spread between zoology and botany.

A bit of history

After two masters’ degrees with macrophytes (Myriophyllum spicatum and Utricularia vulgaris) and zooplankton Marco Cantonati had his first contact with diatoms when he went to Innsbruck (Austria). With Eugen Rott, one of his possible supervisors, he devised an idea to focus on the benthic algae (including diatoms) of the spring ecosystems of the southeastern Alps. In diatom research, he later found his main passion in looking into diatoms primarily as indicators or proxies for environmental signals and sentinels in the most sensitive habitats. He finds that even more than the taxonomy per se, the integrated characterization of diatoms for applied uses is of paramount importance. For him taxonomy, monitoring and conservation are of equal importance. This is why in 2015 he organized a thematic congress on applied ecology of both diatoms and benthic algae called “Use of Algae for Monitoring Rivers and Comparable Habitats”.

During his Ph.D., he first got in contact with the diatom community while participating in the then Deutschsprachige Diatomologen Treffen in Innsbruck in 1993. There he got his first impressions of the European diatom community [DDT was the German speaking diatom meeting, later turned into the Central European Diatom Meeting - CEDM and now known as the European Diatom Meeting]. This led him to organise the DDT meeting in Trento already in 1998, after he got a position in the Science Museum in Trento in 1995, and the CEDM again in 2008.

Marco Cantonati sharing some microscopy insights to young observer.

Marco Cantonati sharing some microscopy insights to young observer.

Marco Cantonati in full river sampling gear.

Marco Cantonati in full river sampling gear.

Sampling with a boat with rower,

Sampling with a boat with rower, his then long-term student, now Dr. Daniel Spitale working freelance in biomonitoring.

Marco Cantonati and ISDR

Marco Cantonati's first contact with the International Society for Diatom Research came quite late, during the IDS in Ottawa (2002). Since, in 1994, he felt too inexperienced to participate in the closer Maratea (Italy). He also participated in the Irkutsk IDS in 2008, which was well attended. This led him to comment on the apparent trend of membership and participation reduction in both ISDR and IDS. He concedes that the local and thematically limited networking opportunities are an important trend. However, he believes that the international aspect of diatomology should not be taken for granted.

"There is a big value in being part of a global […] community, you can be with colleagues on other parts of the planet. If you want to plan to investigate somewhere or even do some diatom business internationally, in all parts of the world you will find a diatom fellow that will be happy to collaborate and share experience."

In his own life, this has meant a clear hierarchy of his self-reflection. A human being first, European second, Italian/German third and his localities (Trento and Bavaria) as his last personality traits. He concedes that maintaining the balance between local and international, or concrete or diffuse science is getting harder all the time.

His thoughts on ISDR are that it still needs to be made more attractive to get a return of the membership. One of the main aspects for it would be the improvement of the Society publication, Diatom Research, aiming to improve the Impact Factor to over 2.5 and into a Q1 quartile. He would recommend following the model of the Journal of Phycology, as this would increase membership. Furthermore, he would like to see some initiatives for Early Career Researchers. Such as the creation of a mentorship program. Finally, he thinks that creating an exchange of teaching materials might be a further way to increase membership.

The mentors of Marco Cantonati's life. "The three musketeers", R. Jan Stevenson, Max L. Bothwell and Rex L. Lowe. Horst Lange-Bertalot and Eugen Rott.

The mentors of Marco Cantonati's life. "The three musketeers": R. Jan Stevenson, Max L. Bothwell and Rex L. Lowe. Horst Lange-Bertalot and Eugen Rott.



When asked about an important mentor or colleague, Marco Cantonati beams while relating experiences shared with Horst Lange-Bertalot. They met in Innsbruck, but have kept collaborating since, also describing new species together. Marco Cantonati remarked on Horsts’ keeping a broad view of the taxonomic system. Simultaneously Horst also cares a lot about their ecology, where a specific taxon is found and the environmental conditions it is found in. This is a very important topic for Marco Cantonati, too. He still recalls looking into acidification and first finding the diatom Psammothidium acidoclinatum, that grows only with low alkalinity. Because of this, in his final remarks, Marco Cantonati reiterated the importance of seeing diatoms, these incredible organisms, as indictors and proxies. Marco stated that diatoms can be seen as sentinels of environmental problems.