Meet Dr Mar Férnandez-Méndez, Co-founder and Lead Scientist for Seafields

Dr Mar Fernández-Méndez

In this piece, we hear from Dr Mar Férnandez-Méndez, Co-founder and Lead Scientist for Seafields – at the forefront of work with ocean-based carbon dioxide removal.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

Dr-Mar-Fernández-Méndez-divingI am a marine researcher and would describe myself as a climate optimist, looking for solutions to mitigate climate change through nature-based ocean carbon sequestration.

I have an MSc in Marine Microbiology & a PhD in Biological Oceanography. I am currently the lead of a Helmholtz Young Investigator Group at the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. My research covers a broad range, from phytoplankton ecology and primary productivity, marine carbon dioxide removal, artificial and natural upwelling systems, climate change impacts on ecosystems, carbon and nutrient biochemistry, carbon export, and microbial functional diversity.

As part of my PhD research into sea algae, I was a regular visitor to the Arctic Ocean. I was able to see first-hand the devastating effects of global warming and the significant impact of climate change on this ecosystem. It was then that I started to move my focus towards finding practical solutions to the climate crisis.

My long-term mentor, Prof Victor Smetacek, introduced me to the seaweed Sargassum and the concept of the perpetual salt fountain for artificial upwelling.  I could see this as a promising avenue for research and began to focus on the carbon sequestration potential of Sargassum. It is free-floating, has a high carbon sequestration efficiency and grows very rapidly (it can double in weight in a mere 1-3 weeks depending on conditions).  It also has the potential to be used for other products as an alternative to fossil fuels.

I have helped to co-found and am the Lead Scientific Advisor at Seafields, who are aiming to upscale my research into Sargassum to sequester carbon and be part of the solution for climate change. We are currently developing a solution to grow the Sargassum offshore in the ocean deserts (the subtropical gyres) – providing it with nutrients from the deep waters using double upwelling pipes that use the energy of the temperature and salinity differences in the ocean to bring nutrient rich waters to the surface and fertilise the seaweed.

The seaweed sequesters carbon while growing and then we will harvest and process it at sea to extract the valuable products. We will then go on to bale and sink the rest into the abyssal plane of the deep oceans to store the remaining carbon. We carefully monitor the surface with biogeochemical sensors, drones and satellites and will collaborate with independent researchers to perform environmental impact assessments of the sinking of seaweed bales in the deep sea with state-of-the-art cameras and sensors.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

As soon as I understood the magnitude of climate change during my years at university, I decided that my career would be focused on finding solutions to mitigate its impacts.  I always wanted to be a scientist and working with the oceans, so I started in academic research due to my innate curiosity, but I never consciously planned an academic career up to the professor level. I like mentoring students, seeing them grow, so that is very fulfilling in my role as a Junior Professor. However, I have now started to realize that if my research is  to have a global impact, I need to move more towards becoming an entrepreneur. That is why I co-founded Seafields. My career is still not fully planned, and I am sure it will come with surprises, but the only thing that is clear to me is that no matter under which hat I work, my aim will remain the same: to help solve the climate crisis.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

The main challenges I have faced are around bringing out the team’s research work from vision to reality.  The practicalities of achieving what we need at the scale you need to sequester carbon dioxide at the megaton and gigaton level are immense.

This year with Seafields we have been focusing on deploying a modular, free floating barrier in St Vincent and have been successful in containing Sargassum, even in rough waves and moderate winds. As with all projects we are having to go through a number of design iterations to ensure the barrier works in competing wind and current conditions, but we have made our important first step towards having a fully functioning aquafarm.

We are running a number of research lines concurrently and have ongoing trials in Mexico where we are testing Sargassum growth rates under different conditions, using biogeochemical tracers and sensors, drones and satellites. We have obtained clear data showing Sargassum’s effectiveness at drawing down CO2, and we are close to understanding what concentration of nutrients we need to upwell to achieve optimum growth.

The next trial we will have is in Bermuda where we will bale and sink around 30 Sargassum bales so we can monitor their degradation rates. In addition, we will collaborate with independent researchers to perform environmental impact assessments of the sinking of seaweed bales in the deep sea with cameras and sensors.  Early next year we will be manufacturing our first prototype pipes and testing the ability of these double upwelling pipe to provide the Sargassum with nutrients from the deep waters (using the energy of the temperature and salinity differences in the ocean to bring nutrient rich waters to the surface and fertilise the seaweed).

All of these experiments and tests take time and patience in order to achieve the abundant data required to proof a concept. But above all it requires hard team work. Taking care of my team and bringing out the best out of each of them is one of the most rewarding tasks of a leader. In science, it is always a team effort, and I am blessed to be surrounded by highly professional and efficient scientists.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

Some of my proudest moments are the collaborative work I have done with inspiring teams of scientists in the Arctic, when I was lucky enough to have a number of expeditions there.  When I was part of an international team of researchers, led by my former Ph.D. supervisor Antje Boetius, I discovered new ways in which microalgae are now growing in the Arctic. I was one of the first scientists to quantify the role of algae growing in melt ponds and other understudied habitats for carbon sequestration. During our 2012 expedition to the Central Arctic, we observed how, due to rapid ice melt events, huge amounts of algae growing below the ice would sink rapidly to the deep ocean, sequestering carbon with them.

More recent highlights are my research in Peru and in Gran Canaria as part of the Kosmos GEOMAR team led by Prof. Riebesell, which led me down a research path that led to my work with Seafields.  We identified which characteristics in the microalgae are favourable for carbon sequestration and which ones favour an efficient food web up to fish under different upwelling intensities (meaning nutrient input from deep waters). These discoveries led me to the idea of using macroalgae combined with artificial upwelling (instead of just microalgae) for carbon sequestration. In addition, an improved way of bringing nutrient-rich water to the surface using the density differences in the ocean seems to be the way forward, which my mentor Prof. Smetacek had been talking about for some time.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Perseverance and optimism. Having a clear goal and being passionate about it. You have to enjoy what you do to keep going, because there are many frustrating moments along the way. I believe that my research is timely and relevant, not only for me and my family, for future generations. I think that I transmit this urgency and passion about what I do and that makes people want to work with me to make it happen.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in STEM?

Think out of the box. Listen to the ones telling you it can’t be done and work harder until you prove them wrong. There are many ways of failing, but only one to succeed. Don´t despair, keep looking for the right combination. And most important, surround yourself with a team of individuals that are as driven and qualified as you.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I do feel that there is still some way to go in terms of gender equality for women scientists and more broadly in STEM. Access to inexpensive childcare that covers the entire working day seems to me to be critical. The most relevant time in a scientific career usually coincides with the reproductive period.  Childcare, whatever country you work in around the world, is often prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, I see it happening all too often that women decide to drop out of science because they only find childcare for part of the day, and they are the ones that reduce their job hours to part-time. This could be because their partner’s job is perceived as more important, society expects the mother to stay with the child, or the partner earns more, and it makes economic sense. If we manage to fill these gaps with affordable and readily available childcare and flexible hours working environments many more mothers would stay in STEM.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in STEM?

I have seen the impact that the role of mentors in STEM can have, especially having prominent women role-models in the top level of leadership at institutions.  I was very fortunate to have a vastly experienced female scientist as my Ph.D. supervisor. She is now the director of the Alfred Wegener Institute, and she continues to motivate and support other women in science.  We need to have mentors (even going one step further to have sponsors to foster connections and open doors for women), readily available to give advice and guidance.

What resources do you recommend for women working in STEM

To be honest, the best resource is talking to other women working in STEM and sharing their experiences. You will feel less alone in your fight and you will learn insider tricks on how the system works and how to navigate through it. For example, I heard from a fantastic colleague about a scholarship for women in science, I applied and I got it.

I would firstly recommend our amazing Sargassum podcast which I co-host – not only will it give insight into the scientific work being done in this fascinating area but more generally on the inspiring environmental stories of people working to come up with solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss. Other Podcasts I really enjoy are Outrage and Optimism led by Christiana Figueres, the mother of the Paris Agreement.

On a more personal level I find the podcast of Esther Perel on relationships very useful. You need to master personal relationships both at home and at work in order to be successful.

My favourite recent books: Becoming Bulletproof, Sapiens and Speed and Scale.