“We Didn’t Even Have Tweezers”
What started as one researcher and a technician with a budget of €0 is now Madeira’s largest non-profit marine research institute, home to a 36-strong research team and a further 22 collaborators. At ten years old, we’re still at the beginning of our journey(!), but this is what we can share with you so far.
It all started with a choice between career and family.
The year is 2011 and João Canning-Clode is working as a postdoc at the Smithsonian Institution in the United States. He’s beginning to make a name for himself in his speciality, marine biological invasions, when it becomes clear that his wife is finding life in the US with a newborn son difficult. Together, João and his wife decide that returning to Europe is the best choice for their new family. They pack up and move to João’s home country: Portugal.
“I thought it would be easy,” João admits, “coming from the US to Portugal. Because of the prestige of the US. I was wrong.” Application after failed application, it soon became clear that his publications and academic track record didn’t hold much weight here, at least in those days. “If you have no connections, if people don’t know you, you don’t exist.”
João eventually found a position in the Azores, which offered him the flexibility to work from Lisbon. After two years, however, his career ambitions had him searching further afield — to opportunities in Germany and Brussels where he could chase the tenure track he still wanted.
But then João’s father unexpectedly passed away. Wanting to support his mother and siblings in Madeira, he returned to the island. João found a desk in the Marine Biology Station of Funchal where he could continue his work as a postdoc. It’s 2013.
A leap of faith
João knew Patrício Ramalhosa from his time in Germany. Both from Madeira, the two met on the GAME program at the GEOMAR Institute in Kiel and became fast friends. João knew Patrício had been struggling to find employment since returning to Madeira from Germany (Patrício, too, had discovered the challenge of not having connections), and João had an idea.
“I got a call from João,” Patrício remembers. “He told me he was returning to Madeira and asked if I would like an internship. He needed a right-hand man. I told him, look, I’ve tried giving my CV everywhere — for eight years I’ve tried. It’s tough.” But João wasn’t dissuaded. “Don’t worry about that,” João told him. “I just want to know if you’re willing to take this leap of faith with me.”
Patrício said yes, João helped him apply for an internship from the government and thus the Canning-Clode Marine Lab was born.
Kids, don’t drink and do biology… (Day One complete(!) at the Canning-Clode Marine Lab)
“We started with nothing,” Patrício explains with a mixture of nostalgia, pride and incredulity. “We came from zero. João had a desk and a computer at the Marine Biology Station. I didn’t have a computer — I bought a computer. We didn’t have a stereomicroscope — we borrowed one from a professor. We didn’t have tweezers. No scissors. All we had was a bench and a roof.”
In those early days, the Canning-Clode Marine Lab used styrofoam boxes for aquaria. It used a pump system built by hand to draw water up from the sea into the lab. And if it was to have a prayer of winning more grants, it needed to produce research that could compete with Europe’s and America’s leading research institutes.
“At the very beginning, when we had nothing, we designed an experiment about microplastics and heavy metals,” João recalls. “We wanted to know whether microplastics are working as sponges, absorbing heavy metals from the water column. Together with a German intern at the time, Dennis, we planned the experiment and then we went to the supermarket. We bought about sixty glass jars of beans at around €1 each, then we took the jars to a homeless shelter in downtown Funchal and donated all the beans for that day’s soup. After that, we took the empty jars to the lab, did the experiment, wrote the paper — and to this day, that paper is by far our most impactful publication. More than a thousand citations, and all for the price of €60.” The memory has João shaking his head as he points out the lesson. “It just shows the impact your research can have, even on a low budget. There are papers we have spent far more money on since that have had much less impact. Resources aren’t everything. If you have a good idea, if you’re creative, if you’re willing to collaborate, you can have a lot of impact.”
Marine biology in action!
Building a reputation for quality research and a list of respected publications brought more funding to the Canning-Clode Marine lab. But this brought with it its own challenge — growth.
In 2015, the Canning-Clode Marine Lab grew to three people when they brought in a postdoc from Spain, Ignacio Gestoso. As the team started winning more grants and bringing in more students, however, it became clear that there wouldn’t be enough room for them at the Biological Station of Funchal to grow. The group had a relationship with Quinta do Lorde (a hotel resort with a marina in Caniçal where they did some monitoring), however, and so drawing again from creativity, João struck a deal with the CEO to get some laboratory and office space there.
“I didn’t anticipate that it would be starting from zero again,” João explains about the move to Quinta do Lorde in late 2016. “I didn’t anticipate that I’d have to pay for consumables, even down to toilet paper. This was scary. I also didn’t anticipate that the construction of the lab would take so long. We had to wait six months! Thankfully the hotel gave us a hotel room while we waited, but six people working from a hotel room for six months? It was challenging,” he admits. “And original, I suppose. I don’t think there are many research groups based in hotel rooms. When Becas (João Monteiro) and Paola (Parretti) came, they must’ve been scared. They were coming from the Azores — from an already-established research institute — to a hotel room! They’ve never said, but I’m pretty sure they had their doubts.”
(“It was a shock,” Paola confirms, eyes widening at the memory of the still-under-construction hotel room. “But I had a lot of trust in the future, and in João.” Sole Alvarez, who also joined the day the group moved into Quinta do Lorde, mostly remembers the bathrooms. “The bathrooms were amazing!” she regales. “Not many labs have marble bathrooms.”)
Right: Ignacio, Patrício, João, Becas and Sole at Quinta do Lorde
Everything starts from zero. Even great things. And once again, this small group working from a hotel room on a tiny island in the Atlantic started doing great things.
“I’m really proud of the MOSS (Marine Organism Stress Simulator, our mesocosm system),” Ignacio says. “It was a big challenge to make that simulator, and it’s really good. When you compare with other labs, this isn’t normal. There are a lot of places with better funding that don’t have working mesocosms. I think it was a surprise to people who came from GEOMAR Kiel, or other very large institutes, when they would go to Madeira to find a team of ten people and a working mesocosm.”
Mesocosms — systems of water tanks and controlled conditions such as salinity, temperature and pH that are the basis of many experiments in marine biology — can cost millions to build and maintain. João, Ignacio, Patrício and (in time) PhD student Susi Schäfer, however, designed and built a mesocosm with a local jacuzzi builder on a budget of €50,000. We’re proud to say that it still works to this day.
Our mesocosm! From early drawings to reality
In 2019, the Canning-Clode Marine Lab joined the consortium of Portuguese research institutes called MARE, becoming MARE-Madeira. We also joined up with the Whale Team from ARDITI — a team with equally creative beginnings. Started in early 2016 and led by Filipe Alves and Ana Dinis, the team created collaborations with Madeira’s whale-watching companies, ferry operator and international groups so that its team of four scientists could gather more data and have a greater impact than was possible alone. Since joining together to become one MARE-Madeira, sharing resources and knowledge, both teams have become stronger and grown ever faster.
Rita, Filipe, Ana and Annalisa in the early days of the Whale Team (photo credit: Nuno Rodrigues)
“Our success today, it makes me proud,” Patrício says. “It’s comfortable what we have today. I have my own desk, we have the lab, the mesocosm. It’s a luxury to have what we have. It’s not perfect, we can be better, but it’s good. It’s been a success in steps.” Sonia Gueroun, an associate researcher from Tunisia who joined the team as a postdoc in 2019, is also proud of what the team has achieved. More than that, she puts MARE-Madeira’s journey in a global context when she observes, “Going from two people to thirty-five in only seven years? It’s crazy! I’ve never heard of a lab growing that fast.”
To the extent it’s possible to condense ten years into a few paragraphs, the above represents our past. It’s been a journey of rapid growth and more international recognition than anyone thought possible at the start. But there’s still a long way to go. “We are not there yet,” João says. “There’s still a lot to do. And while it’s easy to get excited about hopes and plans for our research and our impact on marine science and the ocean, my biggest priority is to find enough money to keep our people employed. We are still very fragile. Ninety-five percent of our team is on soft money. So if I’m less successful at getting grants, this whole thing could collapse. And that’s my biggest fear — the collapse of the group because I’m unable to get funds. Sometimes I have nightmares about that.”
Like any group of people trying to achieve big goals, our success depends upon our ability to work together, to inspire and to bring more people with us on that journey. In other words, we need teamwork, vision and leadership. And while we’d never claim to have perfected any of these — it will always be a process of improvement — we have a strong foundation for all three.
Even from the early days, Ignacio explains that he chose to do his postdoc at the Canning-Clode Marine Lab for a few reasons, “But the main reason was the challenge. João’s vision. He’s a very convincing, powerful person. He knows where he wants to go and he plans for both the short and the long term. For me, it was a very enthusiastic moment — going to Madeira, starting a new project, starting a new group, a new lab. João encouraged me to grow and lead and from the first moment, from our first call, I felt that my role was important there.” Ignacio’s is a sentiment that Patrício shares. “João involved me in everything from the beginning,” he explains, testifying to the trust, autonomy and support that is central to how MARE-Madeira operates. “He deserves a lot of credit for that.”
While leadership can certainly make or break an organization (and we’re lucky that between João and our leadership board it’s the former!), MARE-Madeira is an achievement born of the efforts of many — not just one or a few. We are the product of all the efforts of our people and collaborators over the last ten years. For those who are passionate about the ocean, our planet’s future and the role of good science in aiding both, MARE-Madeira is a place you can go to make a difference.
If you’d like to be a part of our future, as we continue to seek the knowledge we need to make better decisions for our planet and people, talk with us. We are still a small team, but we have big goals and will always listen to those who can help us reach them.