Talking with… Leanne Melbourne

Interview by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Harry T. Jones

Our next entry in the virtual interview series puts us in contact with climate and marine researcher and lecturer, Doctor Leanne Melbourne. Find out how this scientist fell in love with Bristol, about a few unusual species she’s worked on, her thoughts on accessibility and diversity issues in STEM, and the name of the best whisky she’s ever tried.

Leanne Melbourne.

Hi Leanne, thank you for getting involved with the series. For our first question, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

“I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a jack of all trades. I have many interests and I like doing a lot of things, but I can be very impatient and if something is a struggle, I’m more likely to give up and move on to something else. That isn’t to say I’m a quitter, I just have an understanding of where my limit is, and I don’t like wasting time on lost causes. From that statement it sounds as if I’m quite abrupt and I have been told that before, even though I don’t think of myself as being abrupt. I like doing things that exercise your brain, I do a lot of puzzles and quizzes, I recently learnt how to complete a Rubik’s cube, which I think is my big achievement during lockdown. I love music, which I get from my dad, I’m always listening to music and it can be anything from jazz to rock to classical to musicals. I really do love musicals. I used to be really into performing arts as a kid. My Saturdays would be spent at stagecoach doing singing, drama and dance and at that time I remember saying I wanted to be like Julia Roberts who was the highest paid actress in the world – high expectations from a young age. My other hobby is netball, which I can’t really do at the moment and really miss, but that is the main way I stay active. Like many people this year, I took up running as a way of keeping up exercising and I’m still struggling with the motivation on that one.”

When did you decide you wanted to be a palaeontologist? You completed a chemistry master’s followed by a PhD in earth sciences, so was this field always the aim or did you fall in love with it at a later stage in your academic journey?

“I guess I still haven’t decided. I kind of have taken steps on what interests me and have ended up where I am. I initially was going to study medicine and then during my A-levels went to an open day at Imperial College and quickly realised medicine wasn’t for me. I had to decide if I wasn’t doing medicine what I was going to do. Out of my A-levels I really enjoyed chemistry and was doing well in it, therefore I decided that I would do a chemistry degree. So, it kind of was on a whim, but I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed my course. From there I thought about potentially pursuing a career in pharmaceuticals because that was what I thought a chemistry degree could lead me to. However, I did a year in industry at a pharmaceutical company and then I realised it wasn’t for me, so started to go down the route of environmental chemistry. See, it was a lot of working out what wasn’t for me, rather than pursuing a defined career. So, during my master’s in environmental chemistry I went to a fascinating talk by Professor John Raven on ocean acidification and I was hooked. But I still was never going to do a PhD, I never really thought of that as a path to pursue.  It wasn’t until my supervisor on my master’s project said to me that I should consider it, and if it weren’t for him suggesting that I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. So, from there I realised my interest was ocean acidification and its impact on marine organisms. I applied for a PhD project in earth sciences which looked at the impact of climate change on coralline algae. That PhD was in the palaeobiology research group using palaeobiological techniques but it was all on modern material. It is only now being back in the department working as a lecturer that I am now taking my skills and applying them to the fossil record. I guess the interests became more apparent during my PhD being surrounded by palaeontologists and hearing about all the fascinating research. It’s incredible how much we can infer about the past, and how different the planet was to where we are now, and as a climate change scientist how we can use that to predict future ecosystem responses to climate change.”

Speaking of your PhD, it must’ve been incredible to win the Linnean Society Irene Manton prize for your thesis. Where were you when you found out you would receive this honour, and how did you feel?

“So, I was actually working at the Linnean Society at the time. I worked as the Events and Communications Manager at the Society prior to my current role. I knew I had been nominated by one of my supervisors at the Natural History Museum, but I didn’t think I would get it, considering I was working there at the time. My boss came down and told me and handed me the official letter. I was shocked, you never think you would win these prizes and then I did. I was extremely flattered and humbled that people who have no connection to me recognised the importance of the research and all the work and time that went into it. But my thesis wouldn’t be what it was without the amazing support and knowledge from my supervisors. I guess what was really nice, but stressful, was the awards ceremony, because normally I would be running the event, but I was a participant instead, and the control freak in me wouldn’t allow it. So, I was still trying to run the event while trying to enjoy it with my parents, much to the annoyance of my colleagues who probably just wanted to get on running the event without me butting in.”

Leanne receiving her award at the Linnean Society. Copyright: The Linnean Society of London.

Congratulations, it’s a high honour and your work shows you deserved it. Your research at Bristol focuses on how climate change will affect the mineralogy, skeletal structure, and material properties of marine organisms and if they can adapt over longer periods of time. Could you explain what this means, what it involves, and your ultimate aim with this research?

“My research focuses on the impact of climate change on the structural integrity of marine calcifiers through time. So, I am interested in how mainly ocean warming and acidification affect the function of marine calcifiers. In the case of coralline algae, these are habitat formers, therefore a weakened structural integrity will affect their ability to maintain their function as habitat providers. So, this not only affects coralline algae but the organisms that use coralline algae as a home. The properties that I focus on are all properties that affect structural integrity, the major one being the internal skeletal structure, but I also look at the mineral chemistry as the changes in Mg/Ca ratios affect solubility and material properties, material properties being how hard or stiff a material is. I then use a computer modelling package called finite element analysis to model these changes and see how changes in these properties (mainly skeletal structure) due to climate change affect the overall structural integrity. So, by altering the finite element models, we can look at specific questions such as ‘does structural integrity differ between species and does structural integrity differ through time?’ Ultimately, the aim is to predict how the function of these organisms will change under future climate change and therefore give us a better understanding on how we can use local policy changes and management to protect these important ecosystem engineers.”

Sounds like very important work, especially given current global changes. So, what are a few of the big discoveries or projects you’ve been involved in during your career, and what would you like to look at/discover in the future?

“Well, my career is quite short so far, so I think the big discoveries are yet to come. I think for me the development of these simple FE models to test really important questions has been quite defining, as it has allowed me to create this area that I am personally known for. So, when people think ‘coralline algae and structural integrity’, they think of me. Well, I hope they do. I am also interested in genetics and taxonomy, so I guess it is quite cool that my name is now forever linked with Lithothamnion erinaceum, as this was a species I identified through DNA barcoding during my PhD. Oh, and I was involved in some research at the Natural History Museum that was on the news this Christmas. I think the NHM released a statement that their researchers found over 500 species in 2020 and one of the species I worked on, Corallina chamberlainiae, was included. My image of the species made it into the NHM news item, which was nice.”

Leanne’s Corallina chamberlainiae and the accompanying NHM news item. Click Here.

“I guess for me I would like to move onto working on different organisms and exploring the variability in responses to climate change in other organisms to have a deeper understanding of the ecosystem as a whole. So, I have projects looking at benthic foraminifera and bivalves at the moment, and I am currently writing proposals to focus on corals so I guess that is where I am heading.”

You often use a variety of analytical techniques in your research, such as Electron Microscopy, CT-scanning, nano-indentation, and Finite Element modelling. These all sound complex, so how did you find these when you first started using them?

“As I said I’m a jack of all trades. I like learning new things. It helps that they all have really good user interfaces. If I had to deal with something that ran on R code or Matlab, I would be totally stumped. It also helps having exceptional people that can train you and support you while you are working. Without the technicians and other PhD students, postdocs, and researchers who have the experience before me, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up these techniques as quickly as I was able to. I think these techniques are more intuitive than people think, and if you can get your head behind the theory then the actual practice makes a lot of sense. I think it helps for me that in my chemistry degree I had already learnt a lot about the theory behind many of these instruments such as the electron microprobe, SEM, and atomic force microscopy. For me, I regularly use the SEM, the electron microprobe, and finite element modelling. I love the SEM and the modelling; I think it is fascinating that we can see the intricacies of the internal structure through the SEM. I also love the use of FEA to see how shape changes due to environmental conditions, which can affect structural integrity and therefore function. We can focus on theoretical models that take a generic shape or we can use really specific realistic models derived from CT scanning. I guess my interests are in simplifying the problem. So for me I like the idea of using simplified models that can represent the overall shape, but the simplified models allow us to test specific questions such as ‘what does changing the wall thickness do to structural integrity?’, or in the case of bivalves ‘how does convexity affect structural integrity?’.”

Of course, the lab is an important part of your work, but has your research allowed you to get up to much fieldwork, and if so, what has been your best fieldwork experience?

“Not much actually. During my PhD I got to go to Falmouth and Oban in Scotland. Oban was a really cool trip; my parents are both from Jamaica and have been living in London since the 60s and had never been to Scotland. So, I took them along and we made it a bit of a family road trip. Also found a love of whisky from that trip, hands down The Oban is the best whisky I’ve ever had. At this point I didn’t have a diving license so I couldn’t actually dive for my samples, so I got to sit on the boat and take pictures while the divers did all the work. I did do a course in Italy which had fieldwork incorporated and involved a monitoring study looking at the abundance and distribution of another type of coralline algae, Corallina officinalis, which is found in the intertidal zone. So that involved trying to count corallina against a rock while the tide is pushing you back and forth. I think we spent most of the time laughing instead of counting.”

Leanne on fieldwork in Italy.

You’ve had a close tie to Bristol since your undergraduate degree, so it’s safe to say that the city holds a special place in your heart. What has prompted you to stay in the city, has it been where the academic opportunities have best suited you, is it the friendships you’ve made, or a bit of everything?

“I love Bristol. Someone once said to me it is ‘London with a smile’. I think that accurately captures it. There is so much to do, lots of activity, and it is very vibrant, but it is small enough to not feel daunting. The people are friendlier, people are more likely to smile at you, to stop and talk. I like that you can walk everywhere in the city centre. Even as a Londoner, London is just so vast and daunting. So I guess for me it is mainly the opportunities, the right job has come about, but I didn’t even have to think twice about taking it as I already knew the city, I knew the university, I have friends here, a support system, I feel comfortable in Bristol – it’s my second home.”

The need for more diversity in the STEM fields and the scrutiny of racial biases in society are issues you advocate for. It’s important that these issues are tackled, so how do you think science can become more accessible to people from varied backgrounds?

“This is a big question. And I’m still not entirely sure what the right answer is. I think there are two parts. It is about 1) increasing accessibility and 2) supporting people throughout their career. So, increasing access really means universities need to target schools that they wouldn’t normally interact with. Interacting with inner city schools where we know there is a high proportion of ethnic minorities in those schools. I remember being in school and not even thinking about a scientific research career, you did science because you were either going to do medicine or dentistry or a profession like that. The only ‘scientists’ I thought about were people who worked in pharmaceutical companies. Partly this comes down to not seeing people like you, so not realising those career options are available for you. I’ve done a lot of work in schools, mainly primary school in inner city London, and I’ve noticed that all the kids of a certain age are all interested in science, I think for children at that age science is fascinating. There must be a point later where science becomes less appealing and I think we can find that point and intervene. So, try to retain that interest in science and show them the variety of careers in science and that there are people who they can identify themselves with then we may have a chance to increase the diversity of applicants to uni. However, it is all well and good trying to do that but unless we support those students through their studies they won’t be retained and it is why we see this leaky pipeline and the diversity drops off the higher up we go. So mentoring is one way, creating support networks, ring-fenced grants, and committing to tackling biases and micro aggressions that people of colour face.”

Hopefully we can reach a wide enough audience to start making those changes. Following on, do you have any helpful tips or wise words for people who want to become palaeontologists?

“Palaeontology is one of those highly interdisciplinary subjects that utilises a wide range of techniques and knowledge. So, if you haven’t gone down the typical route of say a geology/palaeontology degree don’t let that put you off. I’ve come from a chemist background; I know biologists and physicists who have moved into palaeontology later on in their career. So, if you find the love for palaeontology later on don’t let that stop you pursuing a career.”

Finally, we like to finish by asking if you have a weird palaeo fact that you think people should know?

“It’s not a palaeo fact, but the world’s largest rhodolith bed is on the Abrolhos shelf off Brazil. So rhodoliths are unattached forms of coralline algae. It occupies 20,902 km2, an area comparable to that estimated for coral reefs of the Caribbean (21,600 km2) and the Great Barrier Reef (20,055 km2) and contributes 5% to the total world’s carbonate banks.”

I’d certainly like to finish with a massive thank you to Leanne for her interview, and her terrific information, advice, and thoughts. For more information about Leanne, or to contact her directly, click these links to see her academic profile, Twitter, and LinkedIn.