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Interview with Dr. Susan Brawley

📷 Dr. Susan Brawley

Journalist: Maya Chari

Maya Chari: Welcome back to Sci Section. My name is Maya Chari and I'm a journalist for the Sci Section radio show, broadcasted on CMFU 93.3. We are here today with Dr. Susan Brawley. Dr. Brawley wears many hats. She's been a cell biologist, a developmental biologist, an ecologist, a biogeographer, and of course a Phycologist. She is an elected fellow of the American Association of the Advancement of Science and a recipient of the Phycological Society of America Award of Excellence in 2020. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Brawley.

Dr. Susan Brawley: My pleasure.

Maya Chari : So can you give us a little bit of background about what it is that you do and study and just kind of tell us what phycology is?

Dr. Susan Brawley: Phycology is the study of algae. Algae come in different sizes. They occupy virtually every ecosystem. Algae produced, or have produced, half of the oxygen in our atmosphere. So they're really important. They're at the base of the food web. Some algae actually grow in desert crust and they secrete things that help to hold the desert soil together. Other algae are huge kelps and make kelp forest along cold temperate and subarctic coastal systems.

There are algae to answer almost any question you would want to answer with and that's what attracted me to them.

Maya Chari: I know that you have a lot of interests in a lot of different fields, algae in particular... you've talked about how it is very diverse and can help answer questions. What else kind of attracted you specifically to that field and what was your path to get into algae?

Dr. Susan Brawley : I grew up on a farm and I was very interested in plants. Different people or interested in different things. Edward O. Wilson was really interested in ants from the time he was a boy. And it is really quite frequent that scientists will have had a passion about subgroup of organisms. All of them are important. So, I was interested in plants because they support everything else, and I loved land plants. But then when I went to the sea for the first time, I fell in love with macroalgae, also called seaweeds. From that point on, I did things that would help me eventually have a career studying the algae.

Maya Chari : That sounds like a very interesting path. I know you have produced a lot of really interesting research and really impactful research on Fucus and other algae, and you have made many exciting discoveries. Do you have in particular an 'Aha!' Moment or a discovery that really surprised and intrigued you?

Dr. Susan Brawley : No, and here is the reason: because becoming interested in a question, you have to test it and you think of different hypotheses that might explain something. And so, I had wonderful moments of elation when I was successfully testing hypotheses that I thought were important and getting one of the answers that I thought was possible. But it wasn't really a surprise because I had prepared so thoroughly and worked so hard to test those hypotheses, whether I was working in fertilization ecology, trying to understand what percentage of eggs get fertilized in the sea, or studying the cytoskeleton and how it is organized to support embryonic development in things like Fucus germlings or Porphyra germlings or whatever alga you're talking about. And the same thing was true when I was studying herbivores. I thought that these small crustacean herbivores called Amphipods were much more important than had been thought. And so, I did experiments and tests and they were (more important), and so that was all very exciting. But again,

I didn't just sort of go out and sit on a rock and say, ah, ah! You know, I mean the way a scientist works is more methodical than that. However, I certainly had moments of jubilation when I was literally jumping up and down in the hall.

Maya Chari : You definitely have a lot of experience and a lot of wisdom in the field. So you do work in kind of a changing ecosystem. The intertidal is constantly being confronted with a lot of new ecological infiltrations and changes. Having studied this intertidal for many years, what kind of changes have you seen with the changing climate and how has climate science influenced your research?

Dr. Susan Brawley : So along the Maine coast, my colleagues and I, a couple years ago really defined three different bands of the coast. Southern Maine is particularly impacted. The effect of marine heat waves has been severe beginning in about 2012 and in many years since. And also there are more invasive species. A lot of the invasive species that affect intertidal zone have been introduced through ballast water, or some of them are from the 1800s when ships were using rock ballast, but they hadn't penetrated into Northern New England until relatively recently. And on the mid coast at Schoodic. The thing that I have noticed, especially in the last four or five years is that some filamentous non-indigenous species such as one called Dasysiphonia, are beginning to be found. So they're moving up the coast with warming water. Now, having not done experiments, I'm only suggesting hypotheses to you right now. You know, you have to think about all the sort of paradigms of what we know about what structures the shore, and then do experiments to see what seems to be causing the changes.

Maya Chari : I think it's very important as well to be really systematic with science and with evidence, especially when thinking about applying science and discovery to conservation. What's the relationship between your work and your goals and conservation of this kind of ecosystem, and what do you hope to bring to the spotlight about the intertidal?

Dr. Susan Brawley: The place in which I come closest to being an applied scientist is in terms of the aquaculture work I've done with marine algae. And so I have helped to develop the kelp industry and I've been trying to develop some red algal crops, but we still need to do more work to develop the red algal aquaculture industry. And there are two red algae that are particularly important. One is called dulce, it's common name, and it's eaten by people who live near a shore all over the North Atlantic. It's delicious. So in Maine there's some wild harvesters and some aquaculture companies are starting to grow it, but it's going to take a while to work out the best techniques for growing. And then the other is Nori, the wrapper around sushi. So that's the biggest value of red algae because they're nutritious, they taste good and there's a lot of human history eating different porphyra-like algae. So I hope that will continue to develop in Maine and other places.

Maya Chari : Yeah, it seems like algae is a pretty sustainable thing to farm and also a healthy option to incorporate into life and diet. And I didn't actually know about aquaculture and algae farming until I went to Maine and saw it for myself. So it would be great to increase accessibility and reach of that kind of thing. you mentioned a little bit about funding. That kind of brings me to another question I had. What kind of barriers in terms of funding or any kind of obstruction of your work or your research have you had to overcome to reach your goals and achieve your accolades?

Susan Brawley : I've actually been pretty lucky in terms of development of my career. And I wouldn't say that I had many blocks to that as a student or as a young professional. The place where it got a lot harder was after I had a daughter and I was trying to work and travel and I needed very good childcare. And of course, you know, you love your children dearly and so you can't just sort of park them on the side. And so my daughter got to travel on scientific expeditions with me when she was younger, particularly. Here in Maine, when I would just need to go out and collect for experiments of various sorts here, Anne would often be with me and she would pick up the seaweed if it were loose in the drift and she would go out a little bit in the water, I mean, if this were an appropriate area, right, Which often it was. But obviously she wasn't going into waves. And so she would carry the seaweed and she would toss it as far as she could and just say, "Mommy, I'm saving the seaweed “.

Maya Chari : That's very touching, saving the very adapted seaweed.

Susan Brawley: Yeah.

Maya Chari: Well, thank you so much for talking with me today, Dr. Brawley. I learned so much about your research and I hope that everyone listening got a little bit of insight. One last thing that I would like to mention to the audience is Dr. Brawley actually named a genus. It's called Silvetia. It's my personal favorite genus. I would recommend looking into it. Thank you so much Dr. Brawley. I appreciate everything, thanks for chatting with us today.

Susan Brawley: It's been really fun.


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