Meet the next generation of deep-sea researchers: Maria Rakka

Maria Rakka

University of the Azores, Azores, Portugal

ResearchGate, Twitter1,2

What has been your personal journey into the deep-sea? (Did you always know this is what you wanted to do, or start out on a completely different path?) In other words, what unique journey led you to where you are now?

As a kid I was always very scared of the sea. I grew up in the Mediterranean where the water is usually crystal clear but there are seagrass beds, which look like black patches. These were my nightmare, until somebody gave me a mask. I remember floating above the sandy slopes and wondering what is there in the deep. While growing up I forgot about all this, until I took a marine biology course at the biology school of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in Greece. The course reminded me of this curiosity and led to an Erasmus Mundus master´s in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation and to my first contact with deep-sea research at the University of the Azores, where I am still working.

What is your current research question and why are you interested in this topic?

My work focuses on deep-water corals, especially on octocorals widely known as soft corals. I am trying to understand their general biology and physiology, which includes many questions, like: How do they feed in such depths? How do they reproduce? What does the life of a tiny coral embryo look like in the deep-sea? How is climate change going to affect their life cycles? Corals are extremely simple and flexible animals, they have survived throughout extreme geological periods, and they have always inspired and fascinated me.

Polyps of the octocoral Viminella flagellum maintained in aquaria.

What have been some challenges in your work or in studying the deep sea in general? Has your research turned out how you expected?

One of the main challenges in deep-sea research is its remoteness. Approaching it is time consuming and expensive, usually requires big vessels, heavy logistics and long transit times. I am very lucky, because my research institute sits literally on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and reaching our study sites is relatively fast. However, I often work with live corals and live coral larvae in aquaria and this is quite challenging. It takes a lot of time and dedication to understand their needs and keep them healthy to be able to study them.

Why is this work important to you and society as a whole?

In many deep-sea ecosystems, soft corals are habitat builders, similarly to trees in a forest. Their populations sustain a variety of other marine species, often including commercially important ones. Without having basic information about their biology, we cannot understand their function, predict how they might respond to future disturbances, and ultimately we cannot manage and protect them. These ecosystems already suffer from anthropogenic activities, but deep-sea mining poses an additional future threat. We have currently very little knowledge about the deep-sea and we just started understanding how much we depend on it. My work is an attempt to contribute to this knowledge, to be able to protect deep-sea ecosystems in the future.

Because we are such an international organization, can you describe what the deep-sea science community is like in your region?

I work in the Azores, in a very small institute where deep-sea research is one of the main study themes. Our research team includes people from several countries including Portugal, France, Italy, Greece and Spain. Our island is very small and members of our community spend a lot of time together which creates a lot of opportunities to help each other and get involved in different studies, fieldwork and every day discussions which can be extremely inspiring. We also have very close contact with other research teams both in Portugal and internationally.

What is your current position (student, researcher, government, non-profit etc) and what do you like about your current role in deep-sea science?

I am at the last year of my PhD studies. Although PhDs are notorious for their challenges, I believe they have a very big advantage. Usually PhD students do not need to spend a lot of time in writing new proposals, managing projects, dealing with paperwork or managing research teams which is required in higher levels. It is a period when you have the opportunity to focus on learning and developing your ideas. It doesn’t mean that PhD studies are not stressful or overwhelming, but I feel it is an important opportunity that doesn´t appear much later on.

Maria Rakka in the lab.

What advice could you offer to aspiring deep-sea biologists?

I think deep-sea research requires imagination and an open mind. In shallow-water studies one can visit the study site and take a look at the conditions, feel the current, temperature, light, observe the communities. In deep-sea research it is rarely possible to be physically present at the study site and we usually need to study snapshots of the ecosystem. Putting together the pieces of the puzzle with just a few clues can be challenging. Interacting with other students and researchers is also very helpful.

What is the biggest challenge or project you look forward to addressing in the future?

There are many research projects and ideas that I would like to explore in the future. However, lately it seems that one of the biggest challenges for future researchers is science communication to the public. There are many great initiatives currently but there is also so much information that scientific messages can be hard to transmit. This is especially true for the deep-sea which for most of the people is a dark, cold, unwelcoming place full of weird creatures. Changing this perception seems more challenging than the research project ideas I have in mind, but it is something I would like to get involved in the future.

 What is your favorite thing about the deep sea?

I believe the deep-sea is a magic world in itself, but one thing that always inspires me is the fact that we know so little and that gives us the privilege to study things for the first time. Even if our studies are not big discoveries, there are always times when one has the opportunity to hold a sample that no human has touched before, watch video images that no one saw before, or hold sediment samples that got deposited million years ago in the bottom of a vast sea. It makes me feel privileged and very small at the same time, which is a very good lesson for everyday life too.

Octocoral larvae exploring available substrate.

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