We are stardust is about exploring the worlds of science and art, their similarities, difference, how they intersect and can learn and benefit from each other. I have therefore decided to start an interview series with artists and scientists, asking each of them exactly the same questions. In this first interview, we will travel to the icy Antarctic with moss specialist, Dr Jessica Royles.
Jessica is an old friend of mine who is fascinated with how the world works. She was always top of the class in science when we were growing up and I am so proud that she is now Dr Royles, Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Plant Sciences Department at Cambridge University, UK. Jessica is an adventurer, scientist, mother and an unbelievably kind and thoughtful person. I feel so honoured that she has agreed to be interviewed by we are stardust. Sit down, grab a cup of tea and read about Jessica’s adventures in Antarctica, collecting ice cores filled with ancient moss.
“It is a real privilege to work in this isolated and delicate part of the world…I find the icebergs the most mesmerising part – both the sound as you’re lying in your tent and they carve off at night and their breaking up and you just hear this crashing boom into the ocean. And the huge landscapes and seascapes you can see with nothing that’s man made there...just you on this little, tiny island.”
Jessica, we are stardust is for those with loyal hearts, sophisticated minds and wild natures. As such, please tell us:
- Your favourite piece of wilderness - Signy Island, South Orkney Islands, Antarctica
- Three things you love learning about - Plants, Antarctica, Toddlers
- What love means to you - Fascination and contentment
What did you spend most of your time doing when you were little and what did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up in a small village with no shops or public transport. I spent hours reading books on anything and everything, playing board games, doing jigsaws, walking round the surrounding countryside and helping/hindering in the garden. I don’t really remember having career aspirations and didn’t really know what a scientist was, but I was always interested in finding out how things work, and why things they way they are, and science seemed to be a subject that allowed you to carry on finding out things! My favourite books were “The Usbourne book of Earth Facts” and “The Usbourne book of Space Facts” – I think I could probably almost recite them, and I remember having a pen that I loved to take apart and put back together again as quickly as possible! I always loved planting seeds to see what would happen: my parents have a horse chestnut tree in their hedge as I planted a conker in a pot about 25 years ago, not really believing it would grow into a tree! For months after a seemingly failed attempt to grow an orange tree from orange pips I lovingly cultivated a self-styled “weedery”, a pot in which a wide range of weeds were growing, then, excitingly, I spotted a glossy leaf in amongst the weeds: finally the orange pips had germinated! Three grew and we managed to keep them alive for some years...sadly no oranges (or even flowers)...but I did surprisingly (and painfully) discover that orange trees have spines!
Why did you decide to become a plant scientist?
Having had a couple of years working in a non-scientific office based job office after my degree, I decided I wanted a job that would stretch my brain differently and maybe allow me to do some work outside. I wanted some freedom to think and plan my own work, and to have time to read and learn about new science research, and to make more direct use of my degree. I was doing some University teaching before I started my PhD and I enjoyed interacting with students, and wanted to be able to extend that work. An exciting opportunity came up to do a PhD working with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Plant Sciences Department at the University of Cambridge: two places I’d long been interested in. Cambridge University Botanic Garden has long been one of my favourite places - a beautiful and tranquil place in busy Cambridge - and BAS has the allure of adventure into the unknown. I applied and to my surprise (I literally knew nothing about moss, or Antarctica...I didn’t even know moss grew in Antarctica) was accepted! Eight years and four trips to Antarctica later, I’m still doing similar work, and have leant to love the weird and wonderful world of mosses: plants that grow on all seven continents in almost all environments, and in Antarctica are almost perfectly preserved after accumulating for thousands of years into deep moss banks.
What does your work explore? What are you looking for or hoping to find? Why is it important?
I’m interested in plant responses to the environment: under which conditions are they growing, when are they not. I work with mosses: simple, non-flowering plants that cannot control their own water content. This means that, in contrast to higher plants that have roots and leaves with variable pores (stomata), when the environment is dry, mosses are dry; when the environment is wet, mosses are wet. Mosses will only grow when the external conditions are correct, and between times they will dry out: they are very tightly coupled to their surrounding environmental conditions and some species can start to reactivate within seconds of rainfall, making the most of every brief opportunity for growth. I was previously working on samples from Antarctica, analysing cores of preserved mosses that are thousands of years old to investigate past environmental conditions (a bit like using tree rings). I’m now working on contemporary mosses, growing them in different conditions and trying to understand when they are active, particularly with respect to their water content. This has implications for understanding the responses of vegetation to climate change, as, whilst often ignored, mosses cover huge areas of high northern latitudes and they play a crucial role in carbon storage and cycling in the Arctic.
Watch dried out moss reactivate after rain:
What methods do you use to do your work and why?
We use a wide range of techniques – from drills, ice corers and band saws to extract and slice frozen moss, to mass spectrometers to measure the carbon and oxygen isotope composition of cellulose, water and carbon dioxide associated with the mosses. The carbon isotope composition of the moss cellulose is preserved in the ancient material, and is determined by the carbon isotope composition of the carbon dioxide at the time the plant was growing, and on how wet the surface of the moss was during the growing season. The oxygen isotope composition of the moss tissue is dependent on the source water (often rain), on how much evaporation occurs and chemical reactions within the plant. Thus the carbon and oxygen isotope values can potentially give us information about the environmental conditions around the plant when it was growing. We are also using fluorescence techniques: measuring the fluorescence emitted by plants under different conditions enables us to non-destructively assess the whether the moss is active and how it is using the light energy that is available to it. This method can be used from very small, leaf level, scales up to vast scales using satellites to assess whole ecosystems.
How do you feel when you do your work?
Often frustrated as there are so many points at which the experiments can go wrong and progress feels so slow! For example, this morning I came in to find that the power had to be switched off...so having spent the past two weeks preparing equipment and moss ready to start an experiment today, I cant...However, when things work and you feel that you’ve found something interesting it can be very satisfying: for example we analysed a moss core from the southern, coldest limit of where moss accumulates in the Antarctic and showed that moss growth rates and microbial productivity rose rapidly between the 1960s and 2000s. The increases are unprecedented in the last 150 years and are consistent with climate change. Our record is a unique biological archive in an area where climate and environmental records are very sparse and it is exciting to contribute in a small way to our understanding of the world.
Tell us something you discovered through your work
Travelling, living and working in Antarctica was an incredible experience: Seeing the expanse of the seas and towering ice burgs, feeling the waves and the constant wind, hearing calving glaciers, bird colonies, and, occasionally, complete silence, and smelling the unique aromas of penguins and elephant seals! However, it was also chastening as the impacts of climate change are apparent through rapidly retreating glaciers and changing penguin colonies. When we analysed how the carbon isotope composition of the moss cores from Antarctica changed over the past 2500 years we could clearly detect the impact of the industrial revolution, which was occurring 1000s of kilometres away. As the burning of fossil fuels increased, this altered the composition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and, consequently, the composition of carbon that was incorporated through photosynthesis into moss in Antarctica. It made me realise how interconnected the world is, and how our individual actions can have global impact.