Ten Minutes with Michael Polito, Assistant Professor in the LSU Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences and 2018 Rainmaker
“I'm an ecologist and that basically means I'm someone who studies the interactions that organisms have with each other and with their environment. And the interaction I focus on the most is diets—who eats who. That's everything from understanding a species—how they find their food and what types of food they eat—but also looking across multiple species to understand how energy gets from the bottom of a food web all the way to the top.
The wonderful thing about that is that there are organisms all around, in all types of environments, whether it's here in Louisiana or in the polar regions, such as the Antarctic. The environments can be radically different, but animals are having to make similar decisions and choices.
“My perception of marine biology at the time was some tropical beach somewhere, or at least somewhere warmer than Cleveland, Ohio..”
Growing up, I was interested in the natural world; being outside. And academically, I did well in biology. Those two things combined with the fact that I lived in northeastern Ohio, where it was cold and snowy. That made me want to study marine biology as an undergraduate, because I thought that if I studied marine biology, I could move somewhere warmer. My perception of marine biology at the time was some tropical beach somewhere, or at least somewhere warmer than Cleveland, Ohio.
I did my undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, coastal North Carolina. They had a great marine biology program that really integrated undergraduates in research. So right away, I was able to work on different projects. That was the first time I had the chance to go to the Antarctic, and that opportunity then guided and shaped my career.
It wasn't all glamorous! I was doing a project on penguins, but really I was looking at ancient diets of penguins, so that involved digging holes into the ground and sorting through rocks and ancient penguin poop to find small fish ear bones that I could look at under a microscope. It taught me about the practical nature of science—how you actually do the work. How tedious it can be, and how attention to detail is really important.
“... it's the idea that you are what you eat. Whether it's a penguin eating a fish in the Antarctic, or me eating a cheeseburger in Baton Rouge, some of the chemical signature of that food gets incorporated into the tissue I grow, like my hair.”
I was a biologist who had to learn how to be a geochemist. I got really excited about this technique called stable isotope analysis. Basically, it's the idea that you are what you eat. Whether it's a penguin eating a fish in the Antarctic, or me eating a cheeseburger in Baton Rouge, some of the chemical signature of that food gets incorporated into the tissue I grow, like my hair. You can take a penguin's feather and learn what it's been eating. A lot of my Ph.D. work was about refining that technique—finding out what it can and can't tell us, and then applying it to look at how these three species of penguins in the Antarctic—so similar!—have different responses to climate change.
The fabulous thing about this technique is that it's broadly applicable. Since coming to LSU, I've been able to apply that same toolkit to answer questions here in Louisiana and all around the world.
Team science is really important. Lots of challenges cut across disciplines, and even within disciplines, questions require different techniques and skills. Whether you're collaborating within a discipline or across disciplines, sometimes you need to use different methods and approaches to understand a system as a whole. And that's especially true for science in the Antarctic—it's so hard to get down there that it innately fosters collaboration.
“Since I've been here at LSU, I tend to be doing much more collaborative research. Being in an oceanography department—it sounds like a discipline, but it's multiple disciplines. There are geologists, chemists, biologists, physicists—all working together in a system, the ocean.”
Some penguins are physically easier to work with than others. Some are more skittish, some bigger, some are feistier. The three species I work with the most are the Adélie, the Gentoo and the Chinstrap penguins. They're all close relatives—cousins, you could say. They're so, so similar, and yet their small differences in how they live their lives have a big impact on their success, and with the recent changes in climate, one of these species is increasing while the other two are decreasing. The Gentoo tend to eat a variety of things, closer to home, and they tend to be more flexible, so they respond well to changes in food availability, while the other two species seem to be very good at relying on large, predictable patches of food that are farther off shore. That's great in climate conditions that allow for large, predictable patches of food—but once it gets less predictable or smaller, it can be challenging for those species. On the flip side, if the environment is stable for a period of time, then that species can take advantage and excel over the species that's more flexible—there's a trade-off, being a specialist versus a generalist. A generalist might weather variation, but not be more successful than a specialist in a stable condition.
Since I've been here at LSU, I tend to be doing much more collaborative research. Being in an oceanography department—it sounds like a discipline, but it's multiple disciplines. There are geologists, chemists, biologists, physicists—all working together in a system, the ocean.”
Get to know our other five 2018 Rainmakers:
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