Ocean Blooms


Dr. Flora Vincent talks about plankton, science outreach and her endless curiosity

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Dr. Flora Vincent, a marine microbiologist by training, was born in the Southeast of France in a beautiful place called Aubagne, next to Marseille, and she says her childhood memories of dreamy summer holidays by the sea probably influenced her decision to become a marine biologist. After receiving her BSc in agronomy, she spent six months in the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan working on coral with a team of physicists. The next six months were spent in French Polynesia in a CNRS (French National Research Center) extension, working on coral reef fish. Convinced this was her future, she returned to France to conduct PhD research in marine microbiology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Dr. Flora Vincent aboard the Tara research vessel. Photo credit: NPansiot, Tara Expedition

Vincent has been a postdoctoral researcher in Prof. Assaf Vardi’s lab in the Institute’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences for the past three years. Vincent is the recipient of an Excellence Fellowship for International Postdoctoral Researchers by the Israeli Academy of Science and Humanities.

In Vardi’s lab, Flora is working on the marine phytoplankton Emiliania Huxleyi. The proliferation of these tiny microalgae is responsible for massive blooms in the oceans – so large they are visible from space. These massive blooms get completely terminated within a few weeks by viral infection. Vincent’s postdoctoral research focuses on measuring the impact of viral infection in the ocean: unraveling what governs viral infection dynamics at the single cell level, but also understanding how viral infection impacts large processes like the carbon cycle. These blooms play a key role in our global ecosystem by producing oxygen, recycling carbon dioxide and serving as the basis of the marine food chain.

Sampling plankton in the Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia. Photo credit: SarahFretwell, Tara Expedition

“For me, a key element of the past three years has been how easily we communicate -- within our lab and across different labs,” says Vincent. “This makes everything better and faster -- the science, the collaboration, the learning. I also really like the fact that scientists here ask a lot of questions and are straightforward; it makes science very lively. And we were lucky to be able to coordinate a month-long sampling campaign in Norway in May, 2018, and then to be invited to join the expedition of the Tara Schooner (a flagship project in marine ecosystem research) in June, 2019. Field trips are amazing: they can be so intense; they reveal the most authentic part of yourself (and others), and everything gets exposed. It was an unforgettable scientific experience, and the science that we got done there is truly unique. Field research is much different from that in the lab. It contributes a great deal to understanding the processes that we investigate and their effect on the marine environment,” she adds.

“As a scientist,” my curiosity is pretty endless. Of course, investigating marine biology and how we’re connected to it is a major reason for excitement, and it is one that I can extend to the rest of the natural sciences. I’ll be as excited to learn how octopuses change their color, discover new planets, or track the evolution of language. Climate change and gender studies are important topics to me as well. Outside of science, I love discovering new places (especially those with food...) and have enjoyed hiking with friends and swimming here in Israel. I should also add that I often end up having vigorous debates about societal topics.”

Shaking a sample bottle. Photo credit: Sarah Fretwell, Tara Expedition

Vincent is a firm proponent of scientific outreach. In 2013, she co-founded and led with her colleague, Aude Bernheim (who conducted postdoctoral research at the institute in the lab of Prof. Rotem Sorek of the Molecular Genetics Department), a non-profit organization called WAX Science (wax-science.fr), dedicated to promoting science and gender equality in science. WAX is celebrating its eighth birthday and, and it offers workshops, creates online content for teachers and students, and produces toolkits and games to raise awareness. More recently, they published an investigative pamphlet called “Artificial intelligence, not without her!” The main thrust of the pamphlet: Machine algorithms are not neutral. They reflect the society that produces them and their creators’ unconscious biases. She was invited to present the book on the French channel TV5. Her online presence came in handy during the pandemic, giving her a ready outlet to increase her scientific outreach activity. She found herself giving many zoom lectures at conferences and workshops. “I focus particularly on portraying science as it really is: a good deal of work with a good deal of excitement, accessible to boys and girls, driven by curiosity and aimed at explaining how the world around us works and how we can improve it,” she says.

Dr. Vincent demonstrating a full immersion suit. Photo credit: SarahFretwell, Tara Expedition

When asked about the future, she replies: “Is it reasonable to make plans for the future in 2021?! More seriously, I plan to give talks in different institutes in Europe and Israel, and I intend to apply for scientific group leader positions in the coming months. I think there are many more wonders hiding in the network of marine microbes, and these are what I want to discover.”