Meet our SERC scientists: Evelyn Gaiser

Evelyn Gaiser

Name: Evelyn Gaiser

Home Department: Biological Sciences

How long have you been at FIU? In SERC?
I came to FIU about 22 years ago as a postdoc to work on an experiment looking at the criteria for phosphorus in the Everglades. 

How would you describe yourself as a scientist? How do you describe your title and role?
I am an algal biologist. I study natural communities of algae, especially diatoms, to pick up warning signals and look back at past environments. Currently, I’m the George M. Barley Endowed Chair of Everglades research at FIU’s Institute of Water and Environment.

How did you start working in this field?
I’ve always been interested in water because I grew up around the Great Lakes region in Ohio and would spend most of my time swimming in muddy lakes. I went to Kent State University for undergrad, where I took some classes on limnology and fell in love with it. When I went on to do my masters, I wanted to study zooplankton, so I talked to an advisor who recommended that I spend the summer at a biological field station and take an aquatic ecology course. The class was full, and the only other one available for the summer was a diatoms class. I later found out that people would come from all over the world to take this diatoms course. I became fascinated by the type of diatom that only grows attached to animals and ended up doing my masters about this species. I then went to the University of Georgia to do my PhD on zooplankton. I used the diatoms to figure out why there was some zooplankton in some wetlands and not in others. After graduating in 1997, I heard from my friends at FIU that there was a position available to study algae in the Everglades. I was hired as a postdoc and since then have been at FIU helping to restore the Everglades!

In a nutshell, what is your research about?
The research that I do focuses on the use of algae in the Everglades and other coastal wetlands to diagnose sources of environmental change. They can give us signals of change in aquatic ecosystems over short and long-time periods. If you have contaminant problems in the water, you would be able to learn what’s wrong from the diatoms faster than from the water itself. Due to their structure, once they die, they sink to the bottom of the lake or ocean and are preserved over long periods of time. If you take out a sediment core, you will be able to read the diatoms to discover past environments. They can tell stories about the environment that you can’t figure out in other ways.

What excites you most about your research?
The thing I’m most excited about is continuing to work with diatoms and algal mats. In the Everglades, diatoms grow together in mats. They produce polysaccharide around their shells and it’s like glue because bacteria and fungi stick to it, which makes it look like a carpet or mat and a home for a lot of animals. This mat is really important because it’s part of the food web. However, when you put phosphorus into the Everglades, the mats fall apart. They dissociate so the diatoms are no longer sticking together and a different alga comes in and the whole food web falls apart. We don’t know why this happens, so we have a student, Eric Massa, who’s using computer tools of social network analysis and applying it to periphyton mats to see if there’s a dependency of one thing to another. I am really excited about this project and what we are going to discover. 

How do you think this research impacts people or the planet in a broader sense?
The Everglades is a humongous ecosystem, with enormous complexity – lakes, reservoirs, estuaries, mangrove forests, the ocean and more. It’s massive and changing so fast! But it’s so important, it is the freshwater of the present and future of Florida. It’s part of other resources that we depend on from absorbing carbon dioxide, to supporting fisheries, to developing international tourism; there’s so many elements involved. The Everglades is the icon of wetlands. As the Barley Chair, I am constantly learning new things every day and meeting new people that have been working on the Everglades for 20 years. I am dedicated to doing everything I can, by integrating, synthesizing and helping move forward the work that we do here at FIU. Our FCE LTER program brings people and new collaborators together. Talking about the work we do in the Everglades and that we are looking at these mats the same way we look at human populations, can get people interested beyond the particular problem and curious about science. I think that’s more important for me, that people get curious and wonder what it’s like to look through a microscope or to find out what’s on a lake. It all starts by making the connection with people! It’s important to get the word out through different channels and move the information from scientists to the public.

What do you do when you’re not in the lab/field?
I love music and singing! I’ve taken opera lessons since I was little and been part of church choirs. I have also communicated science through the beauty of music by translating high-frequency data from different lakes into a piano sheet music, and playing it on a piano to better describe environmental changes. It’s a great communication tool that connects with people, especially because sometimes we can hear change better than we can see it.