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April 2, 2017

Back in Germany a quick look back at the first three months of ELIC: What did we want to achieve? Set up a long-term research collaboration between Leibniz and the IUI. What did we achieve? Well, I would say we did pretty well in spreading the idea of ELIC within Leibniz and also within the IUI and its affiliated researchers all over Israel.

The request for research topics was met with an overwhelming response by researchers on both sides, with topics ranging from human induced change to biodiversity to phylogeny and taxonomy of the Red Sea octocorals. Indeed for these two topics plus another twenty, we managed to find interested collaboration partners on the respective other side. Bilateral contacts were established and there are even some suggestions for research topics which led to a bigger group of cooperation partners.

For instance the topic of dust. Here, dust transport modelling and local dust observations will be used to help understand natural and anthropogenic dust variability in Eilat and its consequences for health, climate and specifically physical and biogeochemical ocean-atmosphere interaction. TROPOS together with ZMT will collaborate here with colleagues from the IUI, the Weizmann Institute and the Hebrew University.

There also is a strong group with social sciences approaches, dealing with issues of governance of tourism. Here, the ZMT is in the lead with researchers from Hebrew University, Technion and University of Haifa. All these research ideas will now be developed further and put into practice in the envisaged field work phase in spring of next year. Once a sound research basis is established, educational programs will be developed to support the research and help building up an ELIC community.

Regarding the planned joint lab on the IUI campus, the corner stones for the new building were laid. The building is planned to be ready by summer next year, right in time for ELIC to define how to equip the lab based on the joint research ideas which will have advanced into concrete action plans by then.

Personally, it was a wonderful time in Eilat. A perfect work place in a stunning scenery. And certainly the best place to spend the winter. I was received so warmly at IUI and both researchers and admin staff took so much time to help me understand their work and include me in their social life as well. So here is a big thank you to all colleagues at IUI again who helped advance ELIC and made my stay personally so enjoyable.

And finally from my side: All the best for ELIC!

March 21, 2017

Joint lab construction started!
Today, 21 March, the cornerstones for the new lab building of IUI were laid. The building is largely financed by the biggest sponsor of IUI, Heidi Rothberg. The Rothberg family has a long history of advancing science and economy in Israel and particularly with the Hebrew University and IUI. Both the research vessel and the IUI pier are already named after the Rothbergs.

The new lab building at IUI is constructed above an ancient coral reef. Some of the corals will be excavated and displayed in the new building. The building itself will provide around 1500 sqm for laboratories. The ELIC joint lab will be 40 sqm in size and will benefit from the vicinity of the other IUI labs. (see also IUI page)

At the corner stone ceremony, the vice mayor of Eilat stressed the importance of IUI's research on the marine system for Eilat since a healthy reef is basic for the attraction of millions of tourists to the city at the Gulf of Aqaba. Heidi Rothberg expressed her excitement about this next step forward in the development and scientific growth of IUI.
The construction of the building is estimated to take about a year so that hopefully in spring next year the building and with it the ELIC joint lab may be inaugurated!

March 16, 2017

ELIC progress

ELIC is growing. ELIC is developing. ELIC is getting more and more shaped. Sounds like a human being and in a way that´s what it is. The main feature in ELIC are the people involved. The scientists who drive the joint research projects. And this was the main challenge in these first weeks and months: how to get scientists interested in participating and how to match scientists from Leibniz and IUI sides.

The scope of ELIC is quite broad and allows for a huge range of research topics: A collaborative framework for advancing the understanding of the Gulf of Aqaba and its resources as a model site, with applications for other marine systems. This comprises both ecological as well as societal issues. So, when asking Leibniz and IUI researchers about their research ideas for the new collaboration we got all kinds of answers from “the role of groundwater discharge from sub-desert aquifers into the Gulf of Aqaba” to “interactions among marine bacteria and how they affect biogeochemical cycles”.

On March 12 and 13, we had a strategic meeting with a delegation from Leibniz in Eilat to agree on the main goals for this year and the next. This is how we will proceed: We now got a set of ideas and are in the phase of identifying potential collaborators and refine the research ideas. One means to actually get real will be a joint experimental fieldwork we plan for spring next year. During two to three weeks, scientists from all kinds of disciplines will collect data and samples in parallel: dust, corals, plankton, to just name a few possible ones, and will have a chance to meet the PIs from the other projects. That way, cross-linkages between the projects can be established and new joint ideas may spark off. My main role for my last weeks here is to help establish these bilateral contacts so that scientists start getting in touch with each other and develop a project plan as a basis for grant seeking in the future.

One other part of the delegation visit was to align the diving courses of both ZMT and IUI. As a start, ZMT will hold a diving course in Eilat next year. And of course, there was some time to snorkel and marvel at the colourful fish right off the beach. Maybe I should return next year for the field work phase… (-;

March 6, 2017

Red Sea Simulator

Today I would like to present a very special facility at IUI of Prof. Fine's lab: The Red Sea Simulator. Maoz Fine is one of the resident researchers at IUI. He works on marine environments under global and local environmental change.

The Red Sea Simulator facilitates the study of the response of reef organisms to environmental change such as ocean acidification, thermal stress, and nutrient enrichment in a flow-through seawater system. The system consists of 80 40-liter, individually controlled, experimental tanks that are directly provided with sea water from the adjacent Red Sea. The sea water first goes into a series of mixing tanks where the temperature and acidity (regulation of pH through CO2 input) can be adjusted. The water is then distributed to the individual tanks in a flow-through system (see picture).

The tanks can be used to study the ecology and development of coral reef species and their response to changing environmental conditions. Prof. Fine's lab has been experimenting with a variety of organisms including corals, fish, and urchins. An automated robot works 24:7 monitoring the conditions within the tanks and reports data in real- time to a custom-designed software, which issues an alert if it detects a deviation from the user defined parameters.

One of the research projects currently on-going in the Red Sea Simulator is led by Ph.D. student Jessica Bellworthy. Jess is broadly interested in coral ecology and in particular, the physiological response of corals to thermal stress. Jess studies Stylophora pistillata which is a coral with an unusual reproductive strategy.

Typically corals spawn only at the peak of summer. This species spawns from December to August, almost every night. Jess aims to understand if there is a difference in parental investment, offspring physiology, and resilience to changes in temperature over this period. For these purposes, larvae are collected from corals in the tanks when they spawn at night time.

When first released, the larvae are about 1mm long, so they can actually be seen with the naked eye. Jess collects each larva individually and places them into "settlement chambers". After a few hours to a few days, the larvae metamorphose into a polyp and attach themselves to a base. At this stage one can already study how long this settlement process takes and what the survival rate is and compare the results between different cohorts.

Once the larvae are settled they continue to divide asexually developing a larger colony, which itself will one day be large enough to reproduce. They actually grow very slow. On the pictures, you see a 10 months old coral and a 7 months old one under the microscope.

For more information on the Red Sea Simulator see Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences page.

February 27, 2017

Presenting the IUI Campus

The IUI is the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences, a joint research institute by seven leading universities in Israel for advancing marine sciences (Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Bar Ilan University, Ben Gurion University, and Haifa University, the Technion, and the Weizmann Institute). It is perfectly located in Eilat at the Red Sea with corals rights off the beach and the clearest water reaching depth up to 750 meters in 5 minutes by boat. So there is plenty of opportunities for researchers to do studies here.

The IUI started as a marine lab in the 60s as one of the first buildings in that area. Today it is a campus with a two-storey main building, a diving centre, a lecture hall and numerous bungalows with labs as well as experimental sea water pools student dorms. The IUI hosts a handful of resident researchers and a varying number of technicians, PhDs and Postdocs. Students come from Israel and all over the world to follow the popular 1-2 week courses on the Red Sea and other marine related subjects, including field trips on the research vessel or dives.

The IUI campus is a very pleasant work place. A calm place out of town, directly on the beach, not only most lovely for lunch breaks but also very handy for the researchers. I got a bungalow office right on the beach and snorkelers constantly cross my view. So it takes a lot of discipline to actually work….

Right next to the IUI is the Sea Observatory and if you drive 5 minutes further you reach the border with Egypt. The Sea Observatory is very nicely laid out and has some beautiful and informative aquariums with rare fish species, sharks, turtles and more. As IUI staff you have free entrance. At the observatory, they built an artificial yet beautiful coral ensemble and installed a watching tower in the water right there. The fish are free to come and go but as the coral are that beautiful they always hang out there. So, for those who don´t want to get their feet wet with snorkelling or diving the observatory is the perfect spot. Else you can snorkel right off the beach at IUI and get all kinds of coral and fish, wrasses, clownfish, pipefish, Picasso fish and anemones.

Guest researchers (like me ;-)) are mostly accommodated in one of the two apartments the institute holds in town. The one stayed in in the first weeks has a splendid view over the bay and the Red Sea, and the mountains on the Jordan side are a spectacular sight at sunset, which is when they are red gold.


MOCNESS cruise – searching for plankton layers

Week of firsties – including first snorkeling right off the beach (a must when you are here!!) and first time on a research vessel. Yoav Lindemann and his team kindly allowed me to hop on the IUI's research ship and see their field work on plankton. I was a little worried beforehand if I would get seasick (which I tend to get) but the sea was very calm and we had the brightest sunniest day. Also, in the Northern Red Sea you hardly ever get any real sea waves. If there are waves they are formed by the wind.

So what did they do? The scientists have something like a huge heavy sleigh where they can attach up to nine nets to for the collection of plankton in different depths. That thing is called MOCNESS (Multiple Opening and Closing Nets and Environmental Sensing System). They used it a lot in the past years to investigate plankton dynamics in the Gulf. The Jordan side is short of fresh water so the World Bank founded a project to investigate what influences a major desalination project would have on the Red Sea and how to minimize impacts. Big part of the research was undertaken by Amatzia Genin's lab.

They measured the abundance of zooplankton and larvae of invertebrates and fish from the sea surface down to 250 m across the northern part of the Gulf, including along the Jordanian and Israeli coastlines. What they discovered amongst others was that there is a bigger density in plankton in certain water depths related to a previously-discovered phenomenon that relatively large zooplankters (1-3 mm in length) remaining at a constant depth with high precision by swimming against vertical currents. In the research trip that I joined, for the first time plankton was collected at a depth of 400 meters with the objective of finding out more about plankton in deeper depths and their distribution across the water column.

The experiment will be repeated in a few weeks time when supposedly the mixing of the water layers has advanced and the results be contrasted.So Mocness is towed in the water in the middle of the Red Sea at a depth of about 600 meters and the nets are opened and closed through a computer driven program. When they take in the nets the plankton gets washed down into a small container fixed at the bottom of the net and then filtered into small jars. At land the plankton is counted and analyzed. All of these are very precise processes requiring a lot of precise planning, performance and monitoring.

My two flatmates and me were included in the work by storing away the jars with the precious plankton into a fridge. That way the metabolism gets slowed down so that the animals squeezed into such small space would not eat up each other and leave the scientists with nothing inaccurate data. Our joke on having increased the challenge for the researchers by mixing the taps of the jars was replied with "you know that the tricky controls only come when you try to leave the country, right? (-; "
Looking forward to going on another trip soon!

February 3, 2017

Weekend trip to the desert

Weekends here are Fridays and Saturdays… If you don't think about the weekdays so much you don't notice. It is just that the week starts with a workday on Sunday and all shops are closed on Shabbat. Pretty much the same as back in Germany, only one day earlier.

Last Shabbat I was offered to go to the desert with one of the colleagues of IUI whose second fascination besides the Red Sea is life in the desert. So he goes every Saturday morning (before sunrise, which here is at about 6:30) to take pictures of all kinds of animals, from spiders and scorpions up to gazelles and birds of prey. It is always amazing how much more things there are to see in the desert when you get closer.

In Eilat you see the mountains on both sides of the Red Sea and they look pretty empty from the distance. When you come closer you see not only plants and animals but all kinds of different formations of rocks. I put some pictures so that you get an idea. Besides the mountains, in the valley a lot of stuff is going on. There is a bird watching area. Eilat is a spot for migratory birds which pause on their way to and from Africa. Unfortunately this route is now threatened by the plans of a huge wind park in the valley.

Some birds like the flamingo decided to stay the whole winter so we could spot a lot of them in one of the basins. Also there is a big nature reserve you can enter by car on designated paths. The picture of the gazelle was taken there. Furthermore the land is used for plantations of date trees. What stroke me as a European where all borders are mostly invisible is that you drive up North from Eilat and you constantly have the fenced border with Jordan at your sight, a few meters from the flamingos. That also means that Gazelles and other bigger animals cannot cross the valley from Jordan's mountain chain to Israel's.

January 16, 2017

ELIC is getting started!

So here I am now, in Eilat, at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences helping to set up ELIC: the Eilat Leibniz IUI Centre. Last February a preparatory meeting took place in Berlin, a Leibniz delegation then came over to Eilat (pictured below), and in October last year the Executive Board of the Leibniz Association approved the project proposal for ELIC. Now we are setting the scene for ELIC to really start.

What ELIC is about? We are establishing a long-term research collaboration between the Leibniz Association and IUI and its partners in the area of marine science, join forces in training and education, e.g. for diving, set up a joint lab in order to have facilities in place for both Israeli and German research partners (see also news here). My role as an initial catalyser and project manager is to bring people together and make sure the right questions are asked and solved.

I had a really nice start! Everybody at IUI is most welcoming. The people here make it very easy to connect and integrate. The scientists show me their labs, take me on cruises with their research vessel and even include me in their weekend programs. And they also have a lot of patience with my trying to speak a bit of Hebrew.

Over the next three months I will now be staying in Eilat and I will keep you up-to-date with what is happening here and with ELIC: In the meantime if you have any questions around ELIC, want to come down to Eilat or need any other help related to that, let us know.

Text and images: Nicola Isendahl