Name: Tatiana Gamez
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Department: Earth and Planetary Sciences
Research topic: The evolutionary advantages of toxicity in phytoplankton and the fluctuation in oceanic micronutrients over time
My first impression of Tatiana Gamez is that she’s shy, like me — our conversation progresses haltingly at first before we eventually fall into a quiet rhythm that suits us both. My second impression of Tatiana is that she’s very worldly. The first thing she tells me about herself is all the places she’s lived or visited or fallen in love with. There’s the first few years of her childhood in Chicago; her grade-school years in Texas; the summers she spent with her family in Bogotá, Colombia; vacations in the Caribbean; and now, graduate school in Berkeley, California.
Each new place brought its challenges. At first, when she arrived in Austin, Texas, she found that the people there were very different from the ones she’d known in Chicago.
“It was really weird being the only Hispanic kid at my school in Texas,” Tatiana says. “I remember I got in trouble for speaking Spanish one time. So that was an interesting way to start viewing your culture as a little kid.”
Then, there was her move to Berkeley years later — also “a weird one,” she says. She hesitates, about to leave it at that, but then she says that it might be good for her to talk about it.
“I was in this relationship that was not really the best,” Tatiana says. “My ex pretty much said, ‘Oh, I’ll only move with you for your PhD if you go to California.’ So I only applied to schools in California.”
The long and the short of it is that Tatiana actually became really excited about the possibility of attending UC Berkeley. But then her boyfriend at the time changed his story.
“My ex told me when he said California, he only meant Southern California. So we got in this huge fight about me wanting to move here,” Tatiana says. “He wanted us to move to Orange County because that’s where his family was. And, you know, ultimately, it was my decision because it’s my career and stuff. So I was like, ‘Well, I’m moving to Berkeley. So that’s how it’s gonna go.’ ”
Tatiana pauses here to collect her thoughts, and I wonder to myself what it must be like to have chosen a school for someone who is no longer part of your life. It has to be frustrating, I think, but it also has to be something we accept happens all the time. In the middle of this, Tatiana clears her throat and continues her train of thought, almost as if she was reading my mind.
“I still feel kind of weird about it, because I’ve wanted to live in Boston since I was a little kid. I don’t know why. I just liked it. And, you know, I didn’t even apply to MIT. … It’s probably the best school for oceanography in the world. And I didn’t even apply,” Tatiana says. “I was so excited about Boston. I found someone there I wanted to work with, and I was just like, ‘Yay, I’ve wanted to go here since I was a kid.’ And [my ex-boyfriend] just goes — just no smile, nothing, just [a] straight face — ‘If you move to Boston, I will not go with you; we’re through.’ ”
It’s hard to hear that and not feel the same punch in the gut Tatiana must have felt in that instant. We spend some more time chatting about this and how hard it can be to open up about things like this.
“If you had asked me this a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about it,” Tatiana offers up. “I would have been awkward and maybe tearing up a little or something.”
I tell her that wouldn’t have been a problem — I cry all the time. It’s true.
But after this, it feels important that we talk about something empowering. I decide to ask Tatiana about her research, and in an instant, her whole face lights up.
“That’s my favorite thing to talk about,” she says.
The story she launches into next features Tatiana, age 4, snorkeling with her dad in the Carribean. It’s where she identified her first fish off a laminated poster belonging to a guy her dad met on the beach. And it’s where her dad first told her that she could do this for the rest of her life.
“Ever since then, I just got it wedged in my brain that I wanted to study some aspect of the sea,” Tatiana says, shrugging.
Specifically, Tatiana now studies phytoplankton — tiny, single-celled plants. She informs me that plankton actually regulate everything in the sea. They’re the basis of the food chain, after all. But certain phytoplankton also produce toxins that are actually harmful to the environment — capable of killing other marine organisms, and even humans.
“So you know, that’s not good,” Tatiana says. “But what I’m interested in is, how do those toxins benefit the algae that produced them? Like, what is it about these toxins that are giving them that competitive advantage? And what I’m looking at in particular is how really common toxins off the coast of California actually help these algae by helping them acquire certain micronutrients.”
Tatiana continues to explain how these toxic phytoplankton make up large, harmful algal blooms that are able to siphon off more micronutrients in the ocean, giving them an advantage over other, non-toxic kinds of plankton.
“[This] is a really crazy concept to me,” she adds.
In order to study the effects of these plankton-produced toxins, you need to get to the coastal sampling sites, and to get there, you need to take a cruise. After collection, the water samples are filtered on the boat and the chemicals are extracted onto thin little slips of paper.
Another little, important detail Tatiana points out is that sampling here must take place in the spring. As a second-year graduate student, this past spring would have been her first chance to board one of those cruises and begin collecting data. But of course, spring 2020 was also the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, and all the cruises ended up being cancelled just weeks before she was set to depart.
Luckily, though, Tatiana’s dissertation advisor, Dr. Bethanie Edwards, has some chemical samples stored from 2019, so Tatiana has still been able to get a start on her research. Using these older samples, she extracted the chemicals and ran them on a mass spectrometer — a tool used to measure the mass-to-charge ratio of the molecules present — to see exactly what kind of toxins were present.
It turns out that this is actually a pretty involved process. The seawater samples must be kept at a very low temperature, which means that only certain sample sets can be run on the mass spectrometer at one time, while others remain chilled elsewhere. This also means that someone needs to come into the lab every few hours to switch out the samples and make sure that they don’t degrade.
“Two nights ago,” Tatiana says, “I was in here at 3 a.m. swapping samples out.”
Tatiana also has another project keeping her occupied until the cruises resume: She’s tackling a geophysics approach to her research. Using data from the International Ocean Discovery Program, obtained by drilling deep down into the sediment at the bottom of the sea, Tatiana can observe the Earth’s composition going back millions of years ago. She’s particularly interested in noting the presence or absence of trace metals, like iron, that correspond with micronutrient fluctuations over a geologic time scale.
Tatiana says these fluctuations will correspond to sea level rise over time, and her goal is to build a model to demonstrate that relationship. When she goes to write her dissertation, this will make up an additional chapter.
After this discussion, there’s still something on my mind. It seems important given everything we’ve talked about.
“Are you a boat person?” I ask.
“I get seasick,” Tatiana says. “[But] you just have to suck it up.”
I nod. This seems to me to be the sort of tenet that Tatiana lives by. In her own words: “If you want to go do something, you should go do it. Real simple.”