Molly Czachur is working towards her PhD in Zoology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. She is describing coastal fish biodiversity using an environmental DNA (eDNA) metabarcoding approach.
Molly’s journey into Marine Biology started at the University of Manchester where she began her BSc in Zoology, before transferring to Bangor University for a BSc Joint Honours in Marine Biology and Zoology. Molly graduated from Bangor with an MSci Master of Marine Biology with International Experience. She has worked on various marine systems and organisms, from the effects of bioacidification on shark development (Manchester), gene expression (Germany) and echinoculture (Bangor) to mangrove biodiversity (Kenya).
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
I am researching the biodiversity of fishes across the South African coastline. Interestingly, these fishes (and all organisms) shed DNA into the environment as they move and exist in their habitat, and the DNA that they shed can come from things like their scales, their urine and their faeces. The oceans are therefore a big soup containing loads of amazing creatures, and also the free-floating DNA of these creatures!
Using an increasingly powerful method called environmental DNA metabarcoding, I am capturing the free-DNA (called environmental DNA or eDNA) and matching this DNA to known DNA sequences to identify which fishes are present along different areas of the South African coastline. It involves me travelling to many different shores, from rocky and sandy shores to seagrass meadows and mangrove forests, and collecting seawater. I filter this seawater to capture any DNA that is floating in the water, and bring it back to the lab for DNA extractions, followed by sequencing, and then computer-based processing and analyses (this whole process is known as DNA metabarcoding). I am lucky to spend time in the field collecting water samples, but the really exciting stuff happens once we get back to the lab and process the data, which contains species lists for all the places that we visited! This method allows us to describe fish biodiversity without ever having to actually see the fishes that we are trying to describe.
Most fish biodiversity estimates in the region rely on data from fish that are caught on commercial fishing vessels, which is very selective depending on the type of fishing gear you use and therefore not representative of what fish are actually occurring in those waters. Even using visual surveys (e.g. by SCUBA diving and recording the species that you see) can be biased towards larger species, surveys can often mis-identify cryptic or similar species, and require lots of taxonomic expertise. We are therefore describing fish biodiversity across South Africa using the DNA metabarcoding approach instead, giving us rapid, cost-effective and more up-to-date information on fishes in the region which is vital for appropriately managing these important coastal resources.
What do you love the most about your job?
I love that I can look at the oceans and wonder ‘what if’, or ‘why’ or ‘where’, and then I can take that curiosity and run with it during my research projects.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
I am currently a PhD student, so I still have quite a bit of climbing to do, but from where I’m standing I imagine that every journey will have times that are more difficult than others. Rather than difficult I think it’s just been a natural progression of working hard, identifying my interests and shooting as high as I can with the set of skills that I’ve learned. Somehow I ended up here…!
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
I moved away from my home country a few years ago, which in many ways is a very exciting adventure but it is also a large obstacle that you have to be willing to jump over to take certain opportunities. I was lucky to work in Kenya, then in Germany before moving to South Africa where I currently live. I think that first moving abroad for short periods of time <1yr helped me, as it allowed me to experience working abroad without the permanence, and that made it much easier to make the big jump when the time came! I also think it is an extremely rewarding experience overall to live and work abroad, so it’s worth the challenge.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
I am excited that so many people seem excited about the marine environment, and I’m seeing every day that people of all backgrounds are talking about the oceans and the future of our natural resources. I’m optimistically looking forward to people’s words turning into actions. Thinking about the research we are doing in my lab, I am also looking forward to seeing how molecular ecologists develop tools such as eDNA metabarcoding to see how biomonitoring can be brought into a new era, whereby we can manage our resources based on up-to-date and contemporary datasets at a fraction of the cost of today’s methods. This type of natural resource management will be so important in times of near-future climate change.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
I think that many people are already making this amazing move towards empowering women, and we should keep encouraging everybody, of any gender, race, age or otherwise, to participate in coastal initiatives. Just treating people as people will probably be the best and first step in making young girls feel ‘worthy’ of putting on a lab coat and getting nerdy! Girls can lift boxes just as well as guys… and are often pretty capable of scrambling around a rocky shore for samples!
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Be inquisitive. If you see something that makes you tilt your head with curiosity, feed it by finding out more. There are many amazing aspects of marine science and I highly recommend coming along for the journey. If you’re already interested by marine systems and are thinking of giving it a go, then you’re already half of the way there!
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
If you truly love the marine environment, or even just one small aspect of it, then your dedication will greatly benefit that very environment, and that in itself makes any career choice a very rewarding one.
Social Media Links
Links to previous work:
1. Environmental DNA biodiversity research, South Africa::
2. Elasmobranch research in Manchester:
3. Fish blood research in Germany
4. UN-REDD+ programme, mangrove conservation in Kenya: http://www.talkafrica.co.ke/community-carbon-offset-project-shines-in-kenyas-south-coast/
I would like to give a massive thank you to Molly Czachur for participating in this interview. I cannot wait to share more of your stories and I hope that you find inspiration in learning of other journeys within marine science.
Are you a woman working within marine science? Would you like to share your story and inspire the next generation? Please get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.
Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions and the biography belong to Molly Czachur. All photographs have been used with the permission of Molly Czachur.