Prof Dr Myron Peck, head of Coastal Systems Research:

We did not want to lose time series

“What we’re doing is fundamental science”

“The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was a bit of a strange year to start as the new head of the department of Coastal Systems Research", Myron Peck says. “Of course, the first concern was to keep everybody safe and healthy. But to many scientists, an equally important concern was their time series of field observations. What would the pandemic do to those?”

Peck started as the new head of the department in September, coming from the University of Hamburg, where he was professor of Experimental Biological Oceanography. “I totally understood that concern of the PIs (Principal Investigators)”, Peck admits. “As a matter of fact, NIOZ is famous for those long-lasting time series in the international marine and ecological communities. The fyke near the institute, that’s been looking at Wadden Sea fish community since 1959, the SIBES program, that’s been sampling bottom life in the Wadden Sea for more than twelve years now, they are all extremely valuable programs in a rapidly changing world. So that was one of the first things I wanted to make clear to my new colleagues: we do not want to lose time series, despite COVID-19!” Travel restrictions Of course, the virus made life more complicated than anybody could have foreseen, Peck experienced. “The sampling of the fyke, for example, was cancelled in spring, at the height of the first wave of corona. In fall, however, we managed to continue the sampling. The SIBES program was able to complete half of the more than six thousand sampling points. A number of field expeditions, for example to Mauritania and Siberia, had to be cancelled, due to travel restrictions. The nature of some field work is that people can work relatively safely in this pandemic. They are often more or less isolated and socially distanced when working at field locations. I must say that everybody has been taking COVID-19 very seriously, and we have developed protocols on a case-by-case basis to conduct our field work safely.”

Rich Wadden Sea life

“The nature of some field work is that people can work relatively safely in this pandemic”

Isolated US-born Peck, with his wife and kids still in Hamburg where he worked previously, also experienced the social burden of COVID-19 in the last months of 2020. “At our institute we have a lot of international scientists and guests. It was important to be mindful that, during the lockdown, these members of the team may be faced with particularly challenging and isolating situations with family abroad. I certainly experienced this. It was important for everyone to stay optimistic and support each other.” No monitoring In talking about his new colleagues and the field work at his new institute, Peck carefully avoids the word ‘monitoring’. “On purpose”, he stresses. “Monitoring is something you do on a contract, for a government or a company. What we’re doing is fundamental science. That is also the main reason why many of us were so keen on continuing the field work, despite the pandemic. We are witnessing unprecedented, ecological changes due to the changing climate and other pressures on the environment. These field time series allow us to not only document what is happening but also to understand these changes and their broader ecological and societal consequences.”

Automated weighing machine of the benthos lab, designed and developed at NIOZ

“We are witnessing unprecedented, ecological changes due to the changing climate”
“The connections in the field, among birds, benthos and fish, must be mirrored in our daily work”

Science from the food web Only one month after starting at NIOZ, Peck’s department was faced with an evaluation by the Scientific Advisory Committee. “That was one of my highlights of the year, as a matter of fact”, Peck admits. “The short, online presentation that summarized the work of all the PhDs, postdocs and PIs, gave me a perfect bird’s-eye view of the whole department. It also gave me the opportunity to explain my view on the department for the years to come. We have world-renowned specialists working on various aspects of marine systems, from dune plants and birds, to benthos, seals and fish. We need to continually work towards becoming a true food web of scientists. The connections we see in the field, such as among birds, benthos and fish, need to be mirrored in our daily work at NIOZ. We need to maximize collaboration to advance an integrated approach in the field as well as in our institute.” Bottom up While trying to establish his ‘food web of scientists’, Peck intends to take a bottom-up approach, he explains. “I want to benefit as much as possible from the strong commitment and experience of the PIs and the other scientist at the institute as I chart the course with the group. Much of this comes from informal talks and interactions and this is yet another reason why this whole pandemic has been extremely annoying. We’ve had to miss the small talk at the coffee machine, the sensing of the vibe in a lab... What’s going well and where do we need to pay extra attention? That is something you can hardly sense through ‘Teams’ or ‘Zoom’. Let’s hope we can leave all of this behind us at some point in ‘21.”

Video from ‘WAD, Overleven op de grens van water en land’ by Ruben Smit Productions