Corals, Cooperation and Cooking: meet Anders Meibom
Summer series: A calling for research. Initially, the dynamic, Danish-born Anders Meibom, a professor at EPFL’s Laboratory for Biological Geochemistry since 2012, was not the slightest bit interested in corals. Now he studies them, a loaf of homemade bread always close at hand.
Anders Meibom is a man who appreciates chance – which might sound a bit contradictory in the sciences, in which precision is usually prized. “When you are carrying out research with a specific goal in mind, you often end up discovering something much more interesting,” he says. “This is why in life I avoid planning. I don’t like writing proposals, either: I always have the feeling that I'm making a plan I probably won’t end up following anyway,” he chuckles. And yet, his non-plans often come together with the help of his “A” team.
When he was young, Meibom says, he was a “nerd.” The former member of the Danish national under-18 football team only went to university “because I was really interested in math and physics.” He was, however, a lucky nerd. Fortune first struck when he met a professor who talked him into studying meteorites and doing a PhD. It struck again in 1997, bringing him to the University of Hawaii, one of the world’s key centers for meteorites and cosmochemistry research. “I started out studying space rocks,” he says, not for a second suspecting he would later investigate what occurs in our oceans. In 2000, he accepted a position as a research associate in the Department of Geological & Environmental Sciences at Stanford.
SHRIMP, corals and Swiss cheese
The Stanford campus is home to a large ion microscope, known incongruously as SHRIMP (Sensitive High Resolution Ion Microprobe). Meibom’s professor left shortly after his arrival, which left him free to pursue his own research. Once Meibom had mastered SHRIMP, it became his favorite tool. One day, he stumbled across a paper that described how its authors had used an ion microprobe, similar to SHRIMP, to analyze trace elements in coral skeletons in order to reconstruct historic ocean temperatures. “Some corals grow their skeletons layer upon layer, a bit like tree rings, one centimeter per year. So drilling into one is like drilling back in time. But the paper’s measurements of trace element compositions were so high, I doubted that the authors knew how to operate an ion microprobe. I thought their data must be incorrect,” Meibom recalls.
“The only other possibility was that there was something fishy with the trace element ‘proxies’ that were supposed to reflect the ocean temperatures. But when I measured a piece of coral with SHRIMP I found the same ratios and variations. I was flabbergasted.” From that moment on, Meibom took up the challenge of understanding how coral skeletons form. Fifteen years later, we now know that skeleton formation is a highly controlled biological process in which water temperature plays only an indirect role. “I wrote papers that basically called for an end to drilling holes in corals. In some well-known dive spots the corals look like Swiss cheese because every researcher wants their own piece,” he laughs.
Moving from Stanford University to head up the NanoSIMS laboratory at Paris's National Museum of Natural History in 2005, Meibom expanded his research from coral skeletons to coral organisms as a whole, thanks to an ERC grant. It was there that he began to work with colleagues in Israel, which logically led him, in 2019, to the Red Sea. Now a professor at EPFL, he is also equipped with a NanoSIMS instrument. “We were conducting experiments to understand the role of symbiosis and photosynthesis in corals and wanted to trace metabolites inside coral tissue. The NanoSIMS microprobe has a spatial resolution so precise that we could see how nutrients and metabolites enter tissue and move around. We then began to stress the corals to simulate the effects of global warming and to better understand coral metabolism under thermal stress, which today is tragically killing off corals on a massive scale,” Meibom explains.
Then the team – again, purely by chance – discovered that Red Sea corals have a huge resistance to abnormally high water temperatures. “We stressed them up to +5°C and they remained healthy. Had we done the same thing to Great Barrier Reef corals, they would have all died,” he says. “This was an incredible discovery – the corals in the northern Red Sea will probably be the ‘last reef standing’ at the end of the century. They will be able to resist global warming, so we must do all we can to protect them from being destroyed by local environmental stresses, such as pollution. Through the creation of the Transnational Red Sea Centre, and with strong support from the Swiss Foreign Ministry, we are now working hard to unite countries bordering the Red Sea in this effort.”
The project is far from completion, yet the discovery has made a splash worldwide. “I’ve always been drawn to cool scientific projects that have a ‘wow’ factor,” Meibom admits.
Meibom’s kingdom of boredom
This accomplished sportsman swims, bikes, and practices yoga on a regular basis. “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t move.” And yet, he also confesses to something quite paradoxical: while he needs to be constantly in motion, he forces himself into a state of boredom to remain creative. It's hard to imagine him doing nothing. “During the weekend, I often go to the harbor in Pully; I sit there and stare at the mountains for a couple of hours. I don’t touch my phone. It’s beautiful and peaceful, but after a while it’s quite boring. And when one gets bored, one naturally starts thinking about things, often in a completely new way. Two hours of boredom can actually be much more efficient than a full week at work under pressure or meeting deadlines,” swears Meibom.
And it works: the idea of the SKIL – the Student Kreativity and Innovation Laboratory – came about this way. At the time, he had the feeling that he should be teaching his classes differently, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. Then it struck him that the students were hungry for hands-on projects. Together with Professor Marilyne Andersen, the former dean of the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), he built SKIL, a well-equipped workshop for hands-on projects supported by top-flight lab managers. “SKIL obviously doesn't replace teaching, but at EPFL, when we witness how efficiently students learn by doing, we believe it could play a bigger role in the curriculum. This happens when they have a strong voice in defining their own projects: working hands-on, planning, making decisions as they go, with ongoing professional support. It is an amazing process. The students take ownership of their ideas and projects, while we accompany them closely at every stage. In the process, we also learn a lot from them, I can assure you!” he asserts.
Does he ever stop thinking about work? “I think about it 24/7, which is a bit of a problem. I do a lot of sports, partly to take a step back. Yet it often happens that I come up with the solution to an analytical problem, or some data issue, while I’m swimming in the middle of the lake – again because after 45 minutes swimming gets pretty dull.” Eureka! Meibom even crunches numbers in the kitchen. “I love to bake bread and cook. Cooking is a bit like an experiment: it’s sometimes challenging, it’s a problem you have to solve, and you get the results immediately. I see recipes as loose guidelines, that’s why it’s fun. I don’t do exactly what they say and I still get away with it – most of the time,” he laughs. “Baking cakes is subtler, it’s more like chemistry: you have to be very precise otherwise it won’t work. But I always bake too much, so I give my neighbors and colleagues bread from time to time. Nobody’s left the neighborhood yet.” Given the success of his sourdough and fancy breads, one doubts that his recipes are left to chance.
1969: Born in Denmark
1997: Postdoctoral work at the Hawaii Institute for Geophysics and Planetology
2000: Research associate in the Department of Geological & Environmental Sciences, Stanford University
2005: Director of the NanoSIMS Laboratory at the National Museum of Natural History, Paris
2012: Full professor at EPFL
2018: Helps create SKIL
2019: Studies Red Sea corals