From palaeontology to spongiology: mastering the dinosaur of the ocean
19 April 2018
From an early age, Fenna Beets was determined to be a scientist – although exactly what type of scientist has evolved from her initial aspirations as a five year old. “Pursuing a science-based career was always a given for me. At five years of age it was the role of a ‘dinosaur scientist’ that had my attention, followed by the captivating occupation of ‘volcano scientist'."
Fenna finally fulfils that long-held goal graduating from the University of Waikato in Tauranga with a Master of Science in Research. But it’s not as a palaeontologist or a volcanologist, but a marine scientist/spongiologist.
Although she grew up near the foothills of the Southern Alps in North Canterbury, it was the ocean and not the mountains that fascinated her.
“As a kid I could’ve spent days on end poking around in rock pools on family holidays to Little Pigeon Bay. The ‘what kind of scientist’ I wanted to be wasn’t set in stone until I was 17, when I went snorkelling for the first time at the Great Barrier Reef. When I put my head in the water with my mask on and saw this explosion of colour and fish, I was absolutely hooked. I needed to know more. It was then I truly found what I was passionate about.”
After an initial year studying at the University of Canterbury, Fenna relocated to Tauranga and studied towards a Diploma in Marine Studies at the former Bay of Plenty Polytechnic (now Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology). The pathway programme between the polytechnic and university meant she transitioned into completing a Bachelor of Science in Biological Science. After an 18 month break to figure out ‘what next’ Fenna returned to complete a Master of Science in Research in Biological Science, based at the Coastal Marine Field Station in Tauranga, under the guidance of Professor Chris Battershill, Chair in Coastal Science.
As part of her Masters research, Fenna investigated the effects of climate change and environmental pressures on marine sponges, specifically Tethya burtoni, a small, hardy sponge – one of about 50 species of sponge found in Tauranga Harbour.
When asked "why sponges?", Fenna says she’s always had a soft spot for "the underdog, the little guy, the forgotten and the minority”.
“It’s been truly eye-opening, learning just how important and understudied marine sponges are. Sponges are pretty much the dinosaurs of the ocean, so I am staying somewhat true to the aspirations of my five year old self!”
At 800 million years old, sea sponges are the oldest living multi-cellular organisms on the planet. Like mini biochemical factories they have developed sophisticated chemistry.
Fenna’s research focused on how climate change stressors, specifically sea surface temperature rise and increasing sedimentation (as a result of increased frequency and severity of storm events) affected the metabolism and survival of T. burtoni, a native widespread sponge.
“Sponges in New Zealand are quite understudied despite having a high level of endemism. This research indicates that in the absence of adaptation, even the hardiest of sponges may seriously struggle under future climate change scenarios.
“The loss of sponge populations and even increased reductions in metabolic processes – as they relate to important ecosystem services such as facilitating the transfer of carbon to the seafloor – could have a significant effect on coastal trophic dynamics. Examples such as this feed into a bigger picture - one that indicates future climate scenarios don’t bode well for the future of the oceans.”
A recipient of the Sir Peter Blake Trust Marine Science Award in 2015, Fenna is currently working for the Ministry for Primary Industries in the fisheries space. Given the nature of her role, it’s given her the opportunity to get involved in other projects with the university and has also got her thinking about continuing her research and studying a PhD at some point.
At the university’s Tauranga graduation ceremony on Friday, Fenna has been given the distinguished role of student speaker. Naturally, it’s a reflective time for her as she considers what wisdom to impart.
“I could have easily pursued other areas of study and landed up in an easy job that pays really well, but we spend so much of our life working – it’s really important to me that I feel satisfied in my work and that I enjoy it. Marine science isn’t the easy road, but for me it’s definitely the right one.”