ASU professor's job is kinda fishy

Editor's note: New Faces on Campus is a monthly feature by ASU News showcasing faculty members who have been hired in the 2022–23 academic year.

Leocadio Blanco-Bercial has a pretty cool job. He studies the ocean from a St. George's observatory on the islands of Bermuda.

He does this in his capacity for the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, one of the longest-serving research institutes dedicated to studying ocean processes in the Western Hemisphere, which is now part of Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

A zooplankton ecologist from Spain, Blanco-Bercial is focused on understanding how diversity is originated and maintained in the open ocean.

Hired this past year as an assistant professor at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, Blanco-Bercial talked to ASU News about his work.

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about your background — where you’re from and how you ended up in academia?

Answer: I am originally from Gijon, in northern Spain. This is a green, mountainous and rainy area in Spain, with cider and bagpipes. It is also an economically depressed region, and when I finished my undergrad in ecology there were not many options, apart from high school teacher or university academia … So, I — somewhat unenthusiastically, to be honest — jumped into a Ph.D. program. I received a four-year Ph.D. fellowship, equivalent to the NSF GRFP, which gave me then a way of living and research funds, and allowed me to carry out short stays abroad.

The truth is that my Ph.D. plans crumbled when an oil tanker sunk in northern Spain, and all other science cruises were canceled to focus on studying the environmental consequences. But I was able to redirect my Ph.D. into a time series that the group at my university was running since late 1992. I also had a couple of scientific short stays at the University of Connecticut, and my host there, Dr. Ann Bucklin, offered me to join her lab as a post-doctoral (student). During one of the cruises there, I met (the person) who is now my wife, so I decided to continue in the United States and looked for academic jobs instead of going back to Europe after three years. Although I had the opportunity to move to the private sector, I could not apply due to visa limitations; if I could, the history might have been very different.

As a dual career couple, we eventually got the job at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences in 2015 as assistant scientists. And now with the merger, we are faculty of Arizona State University. These are very exciting moments for us.

Q: What is your area of research or academic focus? What are you most excited about regarding your research?

A: The focus on my research is understanding how diversity in the oceans is created, maintained and how it influences the larger processes happening in the oceans. Diversity in the plankton is huge; to the point that it was very difficult to fit in our understanding of diversity and competition, which was more tuned for terrestrial systems. Trying to fit that diversity, and the role each species has in the broader community, is then a large challenge in marine ecology.

The part I enjoy the most is when I can take my data, my results, my knowledge, and have them being used in larger models and see them work and improve our understanding of the ocean ecosystem and fluxes. 

Q: When did you realize you wanted to study this field? What was your “aha” moment?

A: I must admit I am not a great example of the famous “aha” moment. To be honest, as an undergrad, I never liked plankton, nor was I particularly in love with genetics. I focused my major in terrestrial environments. I did like ecology and evolution though, which is good, considering where I am and what I do. But life sometimes takes you to places you are not planning to go, and, well, if you must go, once you are there, do your best anyway! 

... In the last few years, I am moving to a slightly different field — still plankton, but moving a bit away from animals — and I am enjoying it. 

Q: How do you want to see this field advance to the betterment of society?

A: I think the field is moving (to) merging (into) a single product or model of all the knowledge. That includes what I am pursuing — incorporating the animal component into the global models that are then used in projections and predictions. I see that data (contributing) to a better understanding of the future of our oceans — and our future depends on them.

Q: What is something you wish more people realized about what your research?

A: When I talk to other people about plankton, I try to make them see how important plankton is for society — both directly and indirectly. ... Many planktonic cultures are used in cosmetics, drugs farming and (the) food industry. We are directly exploiting wild plankton populations ... krill is often found in salads; we can find nutritional supplements made up of plankton since they are rich in the famous omega-3 fatty acids.

Although we are doing that worldwide, the pressure is especially strong in the Arctic and Antarctic regions — two of the environments that we know are suffering drastically from the present global change. We have to understand what is happening in the ocean to the plankton, since we have a lot depending on it, and we might be starting to exploit some resources without knowing enough about them.

Q: What brought you to ASU, and what do you like about the university?

A: I got incorporated as ASU faculty in the process of the merger between ASU and the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. I was associate scientist at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. ... The merger with ASU is giving us access to all the incredible ASU resources — from access to the library, cluster computing and other shared resources to a much larger group of faculty to work with, find synergies and explore new research paths. And, of course, we have now access to undergraduate and graduate students, which we are already incorporating in our research groups.

The few times I had the opportunity to be at Tempe, I loved the environment ... I had so much fun meeting with colleagues and their research groups, discussing potential collaborations and synergies.

Q: What specifically would you like to accomplish while at Global Futures?

A: I would like to move my research program towards a new field, (while) keeping my feet on the solid ground of my present research. And I would like to be able to incorporate those diversity measurements I am interested in into the global picture of our oceans. I have to convince the community that we need to consider those, to understand how our oceans will look in the future. And, I would like to establish a research group ... where everybody feels included but also (gives) people the space they need to develop their own private lives outside working hours.

Q: What’s something you do for fun or something only your closest friends know about you?

A: With my two boys — ages 5 and 7 — most of my free time is theirs. I like biking and taking them to coffee in nice cafes. Once they are a bit older, we will do mountain biking and hike mountains and continue having coffee together.

Top photo: Leocadio Blanco-Bercial conducts a field test in Bermuda where he studies ocean processes in the Western Hemisphere. Photo courtesy Leocadio Blanco-Bercial.

Marshall Terrill