Meet the Scientist: Jon Cybulski

Hello! My name is Jon Cybulski and I hail from the USA, originally from the “large” town of Coventry (its supposedly the largest town East of the Mississippi – jury is still out on that one) in the State of Rhode Island (nicknamed the Ocean State! Some foreshadowing…). Although I am currently a marine biologist studying coral communities through time, this was NOT actually what I wanted to do when I grew up – contrary to the numerous people that tell me at parties “A marine biologist!? That’s what I wanted to be when I was a kid!” 

Side note – its not all swimming with dolphins and sun tanning. Most marine biologists I know don’t even SCUBA dive! Fact. But it CAN be pretty great.

Nope, for me I was in first grade when we had to draw and write a small essay about what we would do for a living as an adult. I obviously chose dinosaur hunting. I don’t mean paleontology (that comes much later), I meant actually getting out there and lassoing me some Velociraptors. Needless to say, the C-T extinction event I learned about later in my education crushed my dreams, and I found myself spiraling in small-town public schooling without a proper direction (I am also quite melodramatic – I was ok people. Public education is great!). More realistically I grew up a super nerd who loved all things science and exploration! Pursuing my undergraduate at Northeastern University in Boston, I found a passion for Geology and Earth Sciences – who knew you could get a degree in being outside and playing with rocks!? 

OK full disclosure – I was a Quaternary Geologist, mostly working on surficial processes, last few million years stuff at its oldest. All you hard rock geologists don’t laugh! We are real geologists too!

However, after Uni I worked for the federal government for five years as an Environmental Protection Specialist (their name, not mine) where I experienced first-hand some hard truths. The projects I worked on dealt with human-driven environmental impacts, specifically resulting from large scale transportation projects. It was my job to research and document the real devastation humans were reeking on our planet in the here and now, from the individual species to the ecosystem wide scale. I quickly learned humans were creating changes to the world, unique over geologic timescales. This is no surprise to any of us! But back in 2008 it was my first real evidence outside of textbooks and university lectures. This applied work led me to contemplate some deeper questions about my science, and the world around us

What was nature like before humans? What were/are the major human insults to different ecosystems? Can looking to the past help us set conservation goals to the future? Without knowing it, these questions propelled me to start a masters and eventually a Ph.D. in historical ecology – a field that studies the interaction of humans and their surrounding environments. 

Side tangent – corals? How did we go from dinosaurs to that? Well real quick…throw in a general interest in human/environment interactions, love of the oceans, understanding that MUCH of the human impact on land trickles its way down to the Oceans making it a good place to do research, the desire to work for the federal government part time while I got my masters (this limits location), a few cold emails to supervisors I was interested in, and bing bang boom – I was introduced to Dr. Kiho Kim, a coral biologist at American University. He wanted someone with a geologic background to pull of some historical ecology work, and SHAZAMM. I’m a coral biologist.

My Ph.D. research at the University of Hong Kong in Dr. David Bakers Coral Biogeochemistry lab investigated the history of coral communities throughout the Holocene in Hong Kong, how humans stressed those communities, and what that might mean for their future (written in past tense – I just submitted my thesis!). My first chapter employed classical historical ecology methods, using sediment-push cores to collect sub-fossils from around Hong Kong, identify them, and compare them to modern communities to infer change.

As you may expect (spoiler alert – but please read the publication!), we found significant decreases in both coral biodiversity and habitable range through time – which we linked to poor water quality from increased development. But fear not! We are conservation paleobiologists! This work has already been useful in conservation and restoration efforts, and can hopefully act as a model for future projects.

I would like to take a brief interlude in this blog post to highlight how much I LOVE isotopes (stable isotope biased – sorry radioactive decay). Gosh, they are so wonderful to explore! I wish I had more time to detail this…but alas.

The remaining chapters of my thesis focused on exploring stable isotopes, and their utility to investigate coral metabolism and nutrient dynamics through time. If only this blog post could be thesis length…for that is what it would take for me to share my true love of isotopes and that research. Alas, I will just say that I used bulk isotopes, enriched isotopes tracers, compound-specific isotope analysis of amino acids and fatty acids, and the denitrifier-oxidation method to extract carbon and nitrogen isotopes (sulfur snuck in their too but not really a main part of my work) from coral host tissue, their symbionts, and their skeletons! Major conclusions – corals are incredible! Those little beasts have access to a wide range of both heterotrophic and autotrophic nutrient supplies, which is what has made them so successful as benthic calcifiers for over 200 million years. However, this success is underpinned by their evolved symbiosis with algae, which is delicate at best. Rising ocean temperatures from climate change, increased nutrients from pollution, overfishing, etc., are all bad news. I am hoping my work can be used to better understand how corals may respond metabolically to future changes to the global nutrient cycles.

Besides looking at old dead things, I also enjoy a few hobbies (read: I had hobbies before I started writing my thesis – currently I am trying to get them back and become human again). Primarily, I train competitively in Olympic style weightlifting (NO I am not, and never will be in the Olympics. It’s just what it’s called). I also brew my own beer – a family tradition! Love to disappear into the wilderness (I mean it…my friends nicknamed me Ranger Jon – love going off the grid), and I am a sucker for any epic fantasy series, communicate primarily in Lord of the Rings memes, and have very strong opinions about the differences between fantasy and science fiction. Did I mention I love beer?

The final thing I will conclude with (no, there was no transition to this thought – it’s a blog post not a dissertation!) will be some general wisdom and then some thoughts mostly biased towards my fellow USA readers. 

First – wisdom for those interested in pursuing a Ph.D. One invaluable insight I gained from working before going back to graduate school was that WHO you work for should be given as much (in my opinion more) thought when making a Ph.D. decision than WHAT or WHERE you work. What I mean is, I worked with many Ph.D.’s and many had horror stories about their supervisors, as they did not know as much about who would be guiding them compared to the topic or the school they chose. I am not saying that you need to be buddies with your potential supervisor, but realize that this person will be your boss, your funding supplier, your mentor, controlling your data, and probably connected to your science for the rest of your career. Meet them if you can. Ask their students how they operate. Get a feel for their personality. I was thankful to get to know my three potential supervisors quite well, through interviews and student discussions. Everyone may not all have this luxury pre-acceptance, but if you do, I would highly encourage it. All schools have their pros and cons, even the “big named” ones. And all research will have its ups and downs, interests and boring points. But a relationship with your supervisor can make or break your degree (and your happiness).  Second – for my USA friends. I just want to point out how AWESOME it was to go abroad for my Ph.D., and how I would encourage others to THINK about it as an option (and ultimately make the best decision for their life). I will be very blunt – I got a significant amount of feedback from numerous mentors while making my Ph.D. decision who thought that going abroad and getting a degree from a non-USA institution would be career suicide if I wanted to come back. It scared me at first, I won’t lie. But then it annoyed me, as to me this is a very close-minded outlook. I won’t point out all the successes I had during my Ph.D. (feel free to browse my website though if interested!) but I will say this – I did pretty damn well! And MANY of these opportunities were only because I went international. Going abroad isn’t the best option for everyone, and I still think WHO you work for is the most important thing, but please be open minded and don’t be afraid to get out of the USA. You will find it humbling, scary, enlightening, exciting, hard at times, experience broadening, and overall (I hope) very worthwhile and life changing. I can truly say that looking back, I would not have changed a thing (not like I planned any of it anyway to be able to change…)

That’s about it from me. As always, “be nice and work hard friends”!


Jon Cybulski