A person in a red coat looks out at a snowy landscape.

Carla looks out at the vast Antarctic landscape where she worked as part of her PhD.

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Behind the Science: Carla Greco investigates how cyanobacteria thrive in Antarctica's lakes

PhD student Carla Greco is researching how cyanobacteria - one of the oldest living organisms on Earth - is able to thrive in extreme environments where no other life can. Her research has seen her visit lakes in the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica and Norway.

We find out more about Carla's research and field work in this revealing interview as part of our new series, where we chat to our young researchers about what they're working on.

How did you end up studying cyanobacteria?

I graduated from the University of Bristol with an MSci in Biology. During my masters, I studied the impact of pollution on green algae, which is something I've always been fascinated with.

Now, for my PhD here at the Museum, I'm researching polar microorganisms, mainly based around Antarctica, and I'm interested in a particular group of organisms called cyanobacteria

Bacteria under a microscope.

A microscopic photo of cyanobacteria collected by scuba divers from Lake Untersee in Antarctica. © Carla Greco.

What's your research about?

My PhD research aims to find out how cyanobacteria have adapted to, and are able to thrive in, extreme environments. In particular, I'm exploring the genetic adaptations that allow them to live at cold - even frozen - temperatures and under very little light.

My research is focused on Antarctic lakes because there are actively growing stromatolites there. Stromatolites are layered structures formed by cyanobacteria. This is possible in Antarctic lakes because they are a remarkably low-disturbance environment - there are no fish or animals to eat the cyanobacteria.

In one of the lakes, the biggest creature is a copepod, which is a type of crustacean usually no bigger than two millimetres. There's no water movement either so the bacteria are able to grow by themselves to form these really interesting structures. When you see a video of these structures, it looks like an alien landscape.

As part of my PhD, I spent two months in Antarctica where I collected samples of cyanobacteria from Lake Untersee with the help of a specialist under-ice scuba diver.

I've since been sequencing the DNA of the bacteria we collected in my lab here at the Museum. I'll be investigating the genes that are involved in making the cyanobacteria adept at survival in these extreme environments and potentially the genes involved in the formation of the stromatolites. Studying them gives us an idea of how these stromatolites formed on early Earth.

Red and orange camps on snowy landscape

Carla and the team camped near Lake Untersee in Antarctica for four weeks during the summer. The temperature inside the tents were bearable as they were placed on top of wooden platforms to provide some insulation against the icy floor, and the Sun shone 24 hours a day. © Carla Greco.

What's the most exciting or challenging thing about your work?

I'm fortunate that my research has enabled me to travel to some spectacular places in the world. In addition to the Antarctic expedition, I've done trips to the Canadian Arctic to learn all the relevant fieldwork skills, as well as to Svalbard in Norway to survey some glaciers.

Given all this extreme fieldwork in my PhD, one of the most challenging - but also the most rewarding - aspects of my work is constantly learning new skills and being pushed out of my comfort zone.

For example, when we were in Antarctica, we used snowmobiles to travel from the plane to the research site. At one point, our snowmobile broke down and we had to figure out how to fix it.

To do this, I had to attempt to communicate with an engineer at a Russian research station who only spoke Spanish. There was no internet in Antarctica, and I was the only person on the team who could speak very basic Spanish.

I'm fluent in Italian, so I slowly explained that the belt of our snowmobile had broken in Italian and he vaguely understood. We managed to get the equipment fixed in the end, but the experience taught me the importance of adaptability - and has prompted me to brush up on my Spanish! 

A woman wearing a red coat looks into the camera.

Carla grew up watching a lot of nature documentaries and initially considered a career as a wildlife filmmaker.

Were there any challenges you had to overcome as a woman?

We know that science in general is a male-dominated space. Working at the Russian research station I mentioned earlier was a stark reminder of this, as during my stay I met only two other women at the base. I'd been warned of this beforehand but it was still a strange experience.

The gender imbalance in the sciences is detrimental for a number of reasons. If you have a lack of role models and don't see yourself represented higher in the professional ladder, it can make you question if you'll be able to have a career beyond your post-doc - the period of research after conducting a PhD.

Are there any changes you'd like to make to the science sector?

I'd say the most important change needed in the science sector relates to funding. Undertaking scientific research costs money - from personnel wages to materials, equipment and travel.

Unfortunately, funding for research is drastically declining, and the method by which funding is awarded is often inefficient. For instance, scientists can spend much of their time applying for grants rather than focusing on their work. The scientific community - and its research - is absolutely vital for society and this should be reflected in the funding it receives.

Job security and stability in the science sector is also a big problem. The norm is to get a contract for around two years after your PhD, meaning that in your second year, by which time you're established and making progress, you have to find a new job. Academia is also facing challenges as a profession - lecturers are having their pensions cut and there are ongoing strikes.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work, I love to scuba dive, whether in warm locations abroad or closer to home. I spent a few months in Indonesia for my Divemaster qualification. In the UK, I frequently go to spot seals in Northumberland.

I also recently volunteered for a charity called the Girls Network. It's a mentoring scheme where I was paired with a young girl who wanted to talk to someone about her future. We had catch-ups each month for a year to discuss goals or worries, such as finding her independence or becoming a leader. It was hugely fulfilling.