Researchers in Focus: Hanna Farnelid


-Caroline A. Littlefield

In this new series on Message From a Bottle, we take a deeper look at the life and work of one of our department’s researchers. This week, we welcome back post-doc Hanna Farnelid, and learn about the work that she has done studying nitrogen fixers at UC Santa Cruz in California.



Post-Doctoral Scholar Hanna Farnelid, image courtesy of 

CAL: Can you tell us a bit about your background?


HF: I was born in Gothenburg and received my Master’s degree at Chalmers [University of Technology], so I’m an engineer.

CAL: Since you received an education as an engineer, what made you decide to study Aquatic Ecology?

HF: Well, my Master’s thesis was focused on a project for detecting genes with very low abundance. That’s something that really applies to marine microbiology, because many marine bacteria are present at low abundances in the environment and we need specific tools to detect them.

After I received my Master’s degree, I was working in Gothenburg at a medical company as a project assistant when I saw an advertisement for a project here in Kalmar to explore nitrogen fixers. I grew up by the sea and spent a lot of time there, and I felt that the project would suit me well. The medical company that I was working for at the time was very task-oriented, and discouraging of exploring any new or interesting pathways in research. Here, I could have much more intellectual freedom. So, I moved to Kalmar in 2007 and began my PhD!

CAL: Your PhD work was on the Distribution and activity of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in marine and estuarine waters – What kind of impact does nitrogen fixation at the microbial level have on food webs and the ocean in general? What is the bigger picture?

HF: A lot of people don’t know that 50% of production on earth is supported by phytoplankton in the ocean. Large parts of the ocean are nitrogen-limited. That means that there is not enough nitrogen for organisms to fulfill their needs. Nitrogen fixers can support production in the ocean by making their own fertilizer from nitrogen in the air!

Nitrogen fixing bacteria can live in symbiosis with plants and provide a natural fertilizer to the plant. This is fairly well studied and used in for example ecological farming. We know much less about the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the oceans.

Here in the Baltic region, it’s quite interesting because the most well known nitrogen-fixers belong to these sometimes very toxic cyanobacteria, which may give nitrogen fixers a bad reputation.

CAL: After you received your PhD, you worked at the Zehr Laboratory in Santa Cruz, studying associations and nitrogen fixation in oceans. What was that experience like?

HF: It has been a great experience! I was working with the P.I. Jonathan Zehr, who is often considered the world’s leading expert on cyanobacterial nitrogen fixers. He was the opponent on my thesis defense, and certainly the author of the papers I cited most in my dissertation! His lab has been very successful in doing some exciting research with nitrogen-fixers.

CAL: How long were you living in Santa Cruz?

HF: Two years and three months.

CAL: What were the greatest differences that you felt working in a Pacific coastal US laboratory and cruise vessel as opposed to working on the Swedish coast in the Baltic Sea?

HF: Well, the cruise vessels that I worked on was in Hawaii (Station ALOHA), so the weather was pretty amazing! As for the culture… it is not a completely different culture but there are some differences in the way we work and do science. First of all, it was a lot bigger – more people and larger facilities, with a lot of fascinating research going on in that area. That meant some amazing seminar speakers who came quite often, so it was incredible to be able to go and listen to people whose names you would otherwise only see on nature and science papers.

I found that the work culture was quite different. Here in Kalmar, I feel that the P.I.’s are more approachable, more accessible. In the US, there were no natural meeting places, it was much more isolated. You couldn’t catch someone in the break room to ask a question. It made the social life in the workplace quite different.

CAL: How does it feel to be back?

HF: It’s a lot of fun! I have another year of funding on the project that I’m working on, so I am back here to finish that up.

CAL: What do you hope to achieve in your research?

HF: Most of the research that I do is basic research, pure science. I am hoping to find some answers into the bigger questions or unknowns that are out there.

Within this field there are so many unknowns and there is so much being discovered each year about how the ecosystem is functioning. I hope in my research to add to the pool of knowledge – in the light of climate change it will be important that we can make some predictions and in order to do that we need to have an understanding of the system.

To read more about Hanna’s research, visit the links below!

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