Meet Dr. Paola Batta-Lona: Assistant Research Professor at DMS

Meet Dr. Paola Batta-Lona - assistant research professor

Photo credit: Peter Morenus

Dr. Paola Batta-Lona is an assistant research professor at DMS. In this interview with graduate student Mengyang Zhou, she shared her research in zooplankton molecular ecology, career path and challenges as an international researcher in the US. 

Mengyang: Can you tell us about your career path? 

Paola: I grew up reading Jacques Cousteau books and watching videos from National Geographic. I have always been amazed at the adaptation and shapes of marine organisms. I really wanted to study marine mammals, however, during my bachelor’s studies I was introduced to molecular techniques. I took to it and since then I have worked on various research questions using molecular techniques on many different organisms.

I was born in Mexico and left my house for my bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Baja California (UABC) in Ensenada, Mexico. When I finished my bachelor’s degree, Pieter Vischer (a professor at DMS) was visiting our institute and he told me about a scholarship through US-AID-TIES for exchange graduate studies. I applied and was accepted to join Dr. Senjie Lin’s laboratory here at DMS as a master’s student. After my master’s degree, Dr. Ann Bucklin hired me as a technician to work on microsatellites of the Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba). Eventually I joined her lab for my PhD in Oceanography. After my doctoral research, I received a postdoctoral CONACYT fellowship to continue research on zooplankton communities in the Gulf of Mexico at CICESE in Ensenada Mexico. In 2018 I returned to Connecticut and joined Ann’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow. I became an Assistant Research Professor in 2021, and I have been mentoring students and collaborating with Ann Bucklin since then. 

Mengyang: Can you share your research experience?

Paola: During my undergraduate study in biology at UABC, I had a lot of field trips in Botany and Zoology classes. I always enjoyed learning about adaptation of different plants and animals to different ecosystems and biogeography. In my senior year, I was introduced to molecular techniques and for my senior thesis, I worked on antibody expression on bacteriophages to block fertilization on the spoon worm, Urechis caupo. So basically, I designed some birth control for the worm. From the beginning, I really enjoyed bench work, protocols and experiments associated with research.

For my master’s degree, I focused on quantification of gene expression in the cocolithopohorid Emiliania huxleyi. Afterwards, I worked as a technician for Ann Bucklin. Part of my job was going to the sea in the Atlantic, which was the first time in my life. I carried out gene sequencing onboard both US and German research ships. During these expeditions, zooplankton samples were collected at different depths from 5000 m to the surface. Scientists with expertise on zooplankton identified different types of organisms so that we could sequence them. I really enjoyed seeing all the organisms that came up alive on the net and learning their unique features that were pointed out by scientists who were excited to share their knowledge.

That experience sparked an interest in learning more about the pelagic zooplankton community, in particular gelatinous zooplankton. For my PhD, I focused on analysis of the genome and transcriptome of the Southern Ocean salp Salpa thompsoni in the context of climate change. During my PhD, I was able to travel to Antarctica five times to collect samples for my dissertation. I really enjoyed the research expeditions since it seemed like all the oceanography came together – currents, chemistry, and biology, and I was able to experience it first-hand! My PhD lasted seven years, during which I collaborated in multiple projects including gene expression analysis of the copepod C.finmarchicus joining a team of researchers at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) and Hawaii; development of SNPs for Euphausia superba and using real time PCR for diet detection in fish stomachs. Through these experiences, I learned a lot about collaboration and adapting/troubleshooting molecular techniques to a variety of plankton ecology questions.

I’m currently working on food web dynamics in the Ocean Twilight Zone by sequencing stomach contents of fish and salps. Simultaneously I have joined a project to study the zooplankton communities before and after installation of Offshore Wind turbines using eDNA. 

Mengyang: What do you enjoy the most as a research scientist, and what are the most challenging about this job?

Paola: During graduate school, I really enjoyed field work and going to the sea. Currently I really enjoy talking to colleagues, students, and mentees and discussing research questions and ideas on ways to collaborate. I really enjoy troubleshooting things on the bench. The most challenging for me is to put all these questions into papers. Another challenge is funding and requesting that funding. I’m still working on becoming better at valuing my work and learning how to transfer that into self-worth and trust all my experiences and knowledge as a research scientist.

Mengyang: What do you do outside of work for fun, to balance life-work?

Paola: Balancing this position with my roles as wife and mother is quite a challenge. For fun in my spare time I play beach volleyball, spend time with my family and friends, knit, and watch tv.

Mengyang: Do you have any advice for aspiring researchers that want to pursue a career in academia? 

Paola: Be curious, helpful, and collaborative at all levels. Accepting that you don’t know or understand something is more beneficial and less tiring than putting pressure on yourself to know everything. For international students, make sure you research where you are going and get a baseline for your expectations in terms of cultural and infrastructure differences. Share your culture in your new environment; you will be surprised how much it is appreciated by your community.

Mengyang: Can you talk about the challenges as an international researcher in the US?

Paola: Day to day – Lack of transportation infrastructure, regular citizen paperwork (social security, credit scores, bank accounts) was not straightforward since it wasn’t common in my country. Not speaking my native language on a regular basis or having contact with Mexican culture locally. In Mexico, there’s more affection when greeting somebody (hugging, teasing and cheek kissing), so the first months were difficult since I was lacking that type of connection.

Academia – Composing emails, summaries or any type of communication takes a bit longer, English being a second language adds an extra bonus to writers’ block. Expressing oneself clearly and concisely in a second language can be a challenge; differences in style and structure across cultures and languages exist which can present as a barrier to success in some cases. I think that we in academia should do more to ensure those barriers are not in place. It’s one small thing we can do to create a more diverse, inclusive, and ultimately more well-rounded institute.