Associate Professor Abby Smith, from the University of Otago, came to New Zealand 21 years ago to start her PhD. In this video, she talks about the evolution of her research with bryozoans and how experiments she did out of intellectual curiosity years ago are now providing valuable information about the potential impacts of ocean acidification.
Point of interest
Discuss the role curiosity has to play in science.
ASSOC PROF ABBY SMITH
So 21 years ago when I came to New Zealand, I wanted to do a PhD on something to do with carbonate, but I didn’t have a particular focus. And my supervisor said that no one was working on bryozoans and yet they were really important, and I hadn’t even heard of them. So I thought that was a good idea, a good challenge, and I picked it up and I wrote my PhD on the sedimentology of bryozoans. And it was work that I enjoyed doing, and I was happy to do and it appeared to have no practical application whatsoever. My very first paper I ever wrote was on dissolution rates in bryozoans and how they dissolve if you put them in acid and whether it’s what they are made of that determines the rate they dissolve or what shape they are. And I was happy to get it published, and the reviewer said, “This is an interesting paper but it will never have any practical application whatsoever.” So if we fast-forward 20 years, and I went to a workshop on ocean acidification in Hobart, and they said, you know, what we really need to know is how things dissolve. Which creatures are going to find it the hardest to survive if the ocean loses pH? All of a sudden, I realised that that paper was the answer, that I’d been doing it absolutely out of sheer curiosity, and it turned out to be exactly what we need to know. So now I have a number of students doing similar kinds of experiments, looking at bryozoans, in particular, because they are very diverse in terms of what they are made of and also very diverse in terms of their shapes, so you can investigate the relationships between shape and composition – dipping them in acid and seeing what happens pretty much. And it’s been a surprise to me to find something that I just did for intellectual curiosity to be of so much use at this stage. My research is important to me because I’m interested in it, and my research has, for a long time, not been very important to anyone else. I think of science as being like a river and everybody adds their little drop, but you might not actually contribute a great deal to the river, but it’s still good to find things out. As my research isn’t particularly expensive or difficult to fund, it doesn’t really matter if it’s not appealing to other people – I can just go ahead and do it. Ocean acidification has caused me to change a little bit in my views about that. I’m co-operating more with other people, I’m working harder on the practical applications of what I do instead of just the intellectual challenge, and I’m starting to be involved in things like policy and government responses and advocacy and parts of science that I haven’t done in the past – bryozoans not really requiring any government policy up to now. But I think the issue of ocean acidification has caused my approach to my research and my understanding of how important it is to change quite a lot.