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14 May 2024

The Theoretical Physicist Who Went to Sea To Track Microplastics

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Enrico Ser-Giacomi, a researcher at IFISC (CSIC-UIB), set sail with professional sailor Alberto Riva to help understand the role of ocean currents in the distribution of microplastics in the Ibiza Channel (Mediterranean Sea). He has also developed models of how plankton communities form. He uses network theory and Lagrangian methods to study the interaction between physical, ecological and biological factors.

Enrico Ser-Giacomi is a researcher at the Institute of Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems, IFISC (CSIC-UIB), specialising in fluid dynamics and marine ecology. Credit: Enrico Ser-Giacomi.
Enrico Ser-Giacomi is a researcher at the Institute of Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems, IFISC (CSIC-UIB), specialising in fluid dynamics and marine ecology. Credit: Enrico Ser-Giacomi.

The curriculum of Enrico Ser-Giacomi (Perugia, 1986) defies any attempt to categorise it or give it a label. After obtaining a classical bachelor’s degree (one of the six offered by the Italian education system) with Latin, Greek and philosophy, he went on to complete a degree in physics, a master’s degree in theoretical physics and a thesis in string theory. He did his PhD at the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems, IFISC (CSIC-UIB), in Mallorca, specialising in fluid dynamics and marine ecology. A few months ago, he combined his research with his passion for sailing (he started at the age of four, with his father) by joining forces with Alberto Riva, a professional sailor and skipper of a racing yacht, to help understand the role of ocean currents in the distribution of microplastics in the Mediterranean. They have named their collaboration Scheria-Med Sea, after a mythical Greek island in The Odyssey, a nod to the Italian researcher’s classical training.

“We released six buoys in the Ibiza Channel to collect data from this area, which we believe is important because it is located between two large cities [Ibiza itself and Alicante] and there are strong currents,” says Ser-Giacomi. He sees it as a prologue, “a grain of sand” added to the oceanographic campaign that will take place in this stretch of sea during the summer, with a scientific vessel from the CSIC.

“With the amount of plastic we throw away, we should be seeing a lot more on the surface. If some of it sinks and transforms, it’s important to understand how it does so, and what happens to it.”

The aim is to characterise this stretch of sea in three dimensions using a sampling of microplastics, says the researcher. “With the amount of plastic we throw away, we should be seeing a lot more on the surface,” he argues. “However, most of the data on microplastic concentrations are from the surface.” There is much less information about how these concentrations are distributed vertically, throughout the whole water column, how their buoyancy changes, how they move vertically, how they sink. If some of the plastic sinks and transforms, it is important to understand how and into what. “Microplastics are colonised by algae and biological matter and change their properties. We need to know what happens,” he stresses.

BBVA- OpenMind-S Garcia-Enrico Ser-Giacomi fisico teorico que se ha hecho a la mar para rastrear microplasticos_2 Hace unos meses se embarcó con el velista profesional Alberto Riva para ayudar a entender el papel de las corrientes oceánicas en la distribución de microplásticos en el Mediterráneo. Crédito: Enrico Ser-Giacomi.
A few months ago, he joined forces with Alberto Riva, a professional sailor to help understand the role of ocean currents in the distribution of microplastics in the Mediterranean. Credit: Enrico Ser-Giacomi.

His approach is based on a Lagrangian perspective. “It’s my way of describing physics; from the point of view of a fluid system, it would be trying to model the dynamics by following particles and masses of water in time and space,” he explains. And in network theory, which he has been using for years to study how different regions of the ocean are connected by ocean currents, this approach could be used to research, for example, the flow of plastic in the Mediterranean. During his postdoctoral stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Ser-Giacomi developed models of how plankton communities form, which play a crucial role in carbon storage, global climate and ecosystem function. His work has been published in the scientific journal Nature Communications

“For young people who want to go into research, I recommend that they start a PhD, to try it out, and to carefully choose a supervisor who really wants to invest time and effort in them.”

He sees himself as a theorist, still doing his maths on paper and his simulations on the computer, but one at the interface with biology and ecology, immersed in the task of understanding the interplay between physical, environmental and biological factors. He acknowledges that in this life as a physicist on the frontier, it is difficult to understand other researchers in the life sciences—“We come from different backgrounds; we speak different languages”—but that it is very nice when, together, they are able to build a common dictionary that allows them to communicate. He believes that the key lies in the desire and humility of those involved.

While at MIT, he developed models of how plankton communities form, which play a crucial role in carbon storage, global climate and ecosystem function. Credit: Enrico Ser-Giacomi.
While at MIT, he developed models of how plankton communities form, which play a crucial role in carbon storage, global climate and ecosystem function. Credit: Enrico Ser-Giacomi.

Before his post-doc at MIT, Ser-Giacomi did two others in Paris, one at the École Normale Supérieure, ENS, and another at the Sorbonne. He is now back at IFISC, with a Beatriz Galindo grant to attract research talent to Spain, where he hopes to make his position more permanent. “A research career is a long journey and you have to get a lot of training; the prospect of a stable position comes later than in other jobs,” he warns. On the other hand, you travel a lot (which he finds enriching), especially in the early years, and you can organise your time as you like. “You don’t get rich, but you don’t stay poor either,” is his experience. He advises young people to “start a PhD, to try it out, and to choose your supervisor very carefully, someone who knows what they are doing and really wants to invest time and effort in you.” He has seen examples of “people hiring PhD students as labour to do their work for them,” and this saddens him. 

“In the 3rd year of physics, I realised that what I really liked was calculations and analysis, and that I had to devote a lot of time to it, in a very perfectionist way. I think that was when I matured enough to have more patience and tolerance for frustration.”

Ser-Giacomi says that every era has its own major concerns, and that the current one is marked by climate change and sustainability. On this point, he argues that when it comes to climate issues, the science must be followed, both by the deniers and the “catastrophists,” as he calls them.

Among other projects, the researcher plans to continue his collaboration with Alberto Riva and turn the sailboat into a floating laboratory to carry out physical, biological and chemical measurements, also in the Atlantic. Credit:  Carmen Martínez Torrón / Getty Images.
Among other projects, the researcher plans to continue his collaboration with Alberto Riva and turn the sailboat into a floating laboratory to carry out physical, biological and chemical measurements, also in the Atlantic. Credit: Carmen Martínez Torrón / Getty Images.

The researcher has several projects underway, including continuing his collaboration with Alberto Riva. “The boat is currently in the Caribbean, after having crossed the Atlantic in a regatta; it will be back this summer,” he announces. In the short term, they would like to collect plankton samples. Further out on the horizon, the idea is to turn the boat into a floating laboratory where physical, biological and chemical measurements can be carried out, not only in the Mediterranean. “We would like to organise a Scheria-Atlantic Sea,” he says.

Elena S. García

 

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