Rainbow Research: Life

To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs have been publishing Rainbow Research! A blog series that aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag.

In this post, Demetrio Mora shares their passion for freshwater ecology – especially diatoms (amazing single-celled algae, that live in houses made of glass), under the flag theme of ‘Life’.

About me

Hello, my name is Demetrio. I am originally from a small town in central Mexico, but I have been living in Germany for the last eight years.

In my spare time I like going for bike rides and walks in nature. I am very fond of dancing, mainly Latin American rhythms and electronic music, although I would dance to whatever rhythm appeals to my soul that I can couple with the moves of my body.

I am passionate about everything related to rivers, from walks along their banks and splashing into their waters, to conducting field work for my research, but also just sitting close by and relaxing after an exhausting or stressful day. My passion for these dynamic systems and the biodiversity they support is what drove me into studying Biology in the first place. This was mostly due to my fascination for aquatic plants, which began at a very early age. After some time, my interests shifted from plants to algae.

I am currently located in the city of Koblenz, which is placed where two major rivers converge, the Rhine and the Moselle…what a treat for a river lover!

The Rhine (left) and the Moselle (right) in the city of Koblenz, close to the confluence of the Moselle in the Rhine. Photograph: Demetrio Mora.

My research

I am a freshwater ecologist and diatom taxonomist. Diatoms are a group a unicellular algae that live encased in glass houses. Although we normally can´t see diatoms with our naked eye, they are of paramount importance in our everyday life. For example, diatoms produce at least 25% of our planet´s oxygen, that is more than all rainforests combined! There are estimates that even put this figure up to an impressive 50% of the global oxygen. So, from every breath we take, at least one quarter of the oxygen in it was produced by these amazing microscopic organisms. Apart from this remarkable feat, diatoms are at the base of the food web, and are widely used to assess current and past environmental change.

Diatoms have been the focus of my research for over a decade now. I am interested in investigating their species diversity, as well as the environmental factors shaping their presence, abundance and distribution in freshwater ecosystems.

Living diatom cells reproducing clonally in the laboratory. The original cells were isolated from rivers and streams in and around the city of Koblenz. Photos: Demetrio Mora.

For my doctoral work, I conducted an integrative study on the diatom diversity of mountain streams in Central Mexico, combining morphological, ecological, and molecular data. I found that at least one third of the diversity could not be identified to species level, which most probably means lots of new species still to be discovered by science and emphasises the distinctiveness of the diatom floras from Central Mexico. My work also highlighted the complementary aspects of classical taxonomy and environmental DNA metabarcoding.

For my current work, I use methods applied to environmental DNA to assess the biodiversity of large rivers of Germany, with a focus on algae and cyanobacteria, as well as exploring the applicability of current methods, and the potential of new metrics for evaluating the ecological status of these rivers. But shifting from studying small intermittent mountain streams in the tropics to very large rivers in a temperate region has not been an easy task. One of the main challenges of sampling very large rivers has been adopting new protocols for sample collection taking into account the fast-changing water levels.

A diverse world in a drop of water

Recognising and celebrating the diversity of life. The microscopic species of algae shown here, found by analysing a couple of drops of water from streams and rivers, belong to the Chlorophyta (green algae), and to the Bacillariophyta (diatoms). Photos: Demetrio Mora.

I chose to link my post with the colour red, standing for “Life” in the Progress Pride flag. This reflects my admiration for all kinds of life on our planet at all levels. From the ones that we can see and appreciate with our senses, but also the life that is invisible to our unaided sight, for example the magic world of microscopic organisms. In a figurative sense, I consider this relates well to the people that identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community and beyond, who have been (and still are) neglected in various ways, who are also marginalised and subjected to systemic inequalities, compared to cisnormative individuals.

Greetings from the German coast of the Baltic Sea! Photograph: Boris König

As a queer, non-binary individual, and a person of colour in STEM, it often feels daunting going on. Not only because academia can be a pressuring and tough environment as an early career scientist, but also regarding my identity. Despite this, I am making my way through, not only based on my work and merit, but I am fortunate to have met supportive peers, mentors, and friends that have lightened and enriched my path. However, luck is not something we can rely on. I advocate that through discussion and actions from a diverse set of individuals we will get closer to making academia an inclusive, diverse, healthy, and safe environment for all. This will certainly help in lifting the barriers that hinder LGBTQ+ individuals in science and beyond, as the invention of the microscope lifted impediments to the study of microbial organisms, illuminating their diversity, which had always been there but was invisible to the unaided sight.

Demetrio Mora Bundesanstalt für Gewässerkunde, Germany

Find out more about Demetrio’s research by visiting their ResearchGate and Twitter profiles. For Spanish speakers, you can listen to Demetrio´s talk about environmental DNA for undergraduate students from Mexico.

You can also read all the posts in our Rainbow Research blog series here!

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