Meet ZEN student fellow, Serena

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Serena Donadi

by Serena Donadi (ZEN exchange student fellow in Virginia)

I was born in Italy 29 years ago. Potentially as a wish for the years to come, my parents called me Serena, which means something between calm, quiet, happy and optimistic. While I think I fit the latter two descriptors, I am much too active and energetic to ever be considered “calm and quiet.”

A childhood by the sea
I spent my childhood in a little town, close to the sea, in northeastern Italy. When I was one-year old, I brought home the first of what would become a long list of pets. It was a cockle (a little bivalve of sandy bottoms, specifically Chamelea galina), which I thoroughly looked after and fed with bread. That triggered the decision from my parents to get a cat. They couldn’t imagine that in a time span of few years, I could add rabbits, lemmings, birds, walking stick insects, beetles, snails, turtles, mice, guinea pigs, ants, bugs, fish, frogs, and more! We moved a few times, and every time my little animal community moved with me. I remember my mother driving a car filled with cages of little mammals and birds while my brother sat in the back seat holding bowls full of turtles and the fish in and I sat  in the front I was taking care of my guinea pig Tommy (my favorite at that time), up worried that he would get car-sick.

The number of animals living with me decreased gradually over time (if we don’t count the hundreds walking sticks in my room) and become zero when I started my studies at the University of Trieste (North-East Italy). There I got my Bachelor’s degree in Natural Science and my Master’s degree in Marine Biology. During those years, I worked in Natural Parks in Portugal and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Italy on butterflies, sea-urchins, and bivalves. My master’s thesis arose from my work with a multibeam echosounder (which is a scientific sonar) in the MPA of Miramare (Trieste, Italy), where we monitored fish population in artificial reef areas close to the coast to track changes in fish abundance over time.

From Italy to the Netherlands
One year after my master’s degree I started my PhD in the Netherlands. How did I end up in the flattest country in the world? I spent some time traveling in Europe and decided to try a PhD abroad. I started up my browser and I soon found the advertisement for a PhD position in the University of Groningen’s  Department of Marine Benthic Ecology and Evolution. I liked what I saw and sent in an application. A few weeks later I received an invitation to go there for an interview. I was so terribly excited! On the 23rd of December 2009 I was shaking the hand of those who are now my supervisors and colleagues, Drs. Klemens Erickson and Jeanine Olsen. After the interviews, I went into town to skate on an ice rink in the main square and soaked up the Dutch culture. I didn’t imagine that I was going to spend 4 years of my life there! I was in a bookshop when my phone rang and I was told that I had been selected for the program. And then, the question: do you want the job? My brain didn’t react at all. I was simply too happy to start any rational thinking process. “Yes, of course I want it!” On the other side of the phone, I heard the voice asking me whether I needed a bit more time to think about it. But I was sure. It was a matter of feeling; good feelings for the people I had met, good feelings for the project, good feelings for the town. What a lucky fit!

PhD Research – secrets of the Dutch tidal flats

Tidal mudflat research

And here I am, raking in the mud to discover the secrets of the Dutch tidal flats. The main focus of my project is the role of ecosystem engineers (species that strongly modify physical characteristics of their habitat) on the mudflats of the Wadden Sea. Our target species are cockles, lugworms and mussels. We want to know how they affect sediment stability and what the consequences are of changes in sediment stability for the communities of organisms that live in this ecosystem. To address this question, we conducted a big field experiment where we added large quantities of cockles or lugworms to 25 m2 plots placed in muddy sites close to mussel beds or in sandy areas far from mussel beds. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun! After 3 years of hard fieldwork I have definitely become a mud-expert, in term of walking in the mud, crawling, raking, and digging.

Going collaborative – involvement in ZEN

SCUBA diving at the ZEN site in Norway

Last year I was involved in the ZEN project at the Norway site. I helped with breaking down the experiment in one of the most remote and beautiful place I have ever seen – Bødo, Northern Norway. It was truly great: a new ecosystem to explore, an exciting experiment to carry out, a great team of people to work with. I couldn’t help but try to get involved again in this summer’s ZEN projects. And here I am, looking forward to traveling to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in Virginia. I’d like to get the chance to thank those who made this possible, first among others: Pamela and Emmet (from VIMS), Klemens and Jeanine (from MARBEE, University of Groningen). What are my expectations? Less mud, warmer temperature hard work and a great time! I am looking forward to meeting the Virginia ZEN team and being on our way to Chesapeake Bay!

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