If you ever wanted a success story of a student who pursued their passion at the University of Malta, this is it. The evolution of Andrea Francesca Bellia’s life at University from being an undergraduate student at the University to working within the Department of Biology within the Faculty of Science and participating in Malta’s first Astrobiology project is inspiring. Newspoint chats with her after collaborating on the social media series ‘Campus Flora and Fauna’.
What makes an Environmental Biologist?
Curiosity. In what makes the world tick, how and why!
Even though a concept might sound simple at first glance, upon asking ‘why’ or ‘how’, the answer may not always be as straightforward.
This deceptive simplicity of nature is what made me fall in love with the subject and constantly want to learn more, while attempting to better understand the natural world around us.
The Flora and Fauna series on UM social media has been well-received. What inspired you to start capturing photographic evidence of it?
The undergraduate degree at UM entails its fair share of fieldwork and photos for reports, as well as for species identification or confirmation. During such field sessions, we often focus on the ‘big picture’, that is on a habitat and community level, rather than individual species.
While my undergraduate dissertation did focus on the big picture by using aerial drone photography to map shallow water benthic vegetation and composition, I was also intrigued with the smaller, finer and more intricate details of individual plants that can be observed in macro photography. This was evident after transitioning to a DSLR, which allowed for far more detail and flexibility in images.
Are any of the species present at UM endangered?
To my knowledge, the Ephedra fragilis (Joint-Pine), Paliurus spinachristi (Jerusalem Thorn) and Chamaerops humilis (European/Dwarf Fan Palm). These species have all been planted in the university botanical garden.
What is your current role at UM?
I currently work as a practical demonstrator for lab and fieldwork sessions at the Department of Biology within the Faculty of Science. I am also reading for an MSc in Biology in Botany/Limnology (freshwater communities, specifically flora) within the same department.
You’re also an integral part of Malta’s first academic venture into astrobiology. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Our venture in Astrobiology first took off at a THINK Soapbox event on 27 January 2020. At the event, Dr Sandro Lanfranco, my current M.Sc. supervisor and B.Sc. co-supervisor at the time, and I first started speaking to Maths & Physics student Maria Aquilina.
In her talk, she detailed work carried out with Ph.D. student Josef Borg, Prof. Kris Zarb Adami, and Prof. Joseph Borg, on the radiation tolerance of E.Coli bacteria (DH-5 alpha). We eventually got talking about the ever-popular and resilient, yet charismatic tardigrades, and more specifically, where one might find them.
Maria and her team had been aiming to bridge Astrophysics and Biology and inquired whether we would be interested in embarking upon this journey. Our next encounter at the S-cubed online science conference then led to our first meeting as a whole group in May.
Despite being a young team, we have already made a debut in the field at the European Astrobiology Network Association (EANE) online conference in August 2020.We hope that through networking and interdisciplinarity collaborations currently forged between the Departments of Biology, Maths & Physics, Applied Biomedical Science, and the Institute of Space Sciences & Astronomy, this will allow us to continue shooting for the stars.
It has been said that Malta is very fragile in terms of its biodiversity and ecosystems. Why is it so?
With an ever-growing population of almost half-a-million on a small rock of only 316km2, our overpopulation and its demands play the largest part in our poor biodiversity and its rapid decline.
Ranking as the 9th most densely populated country in the world, and the most densely-populated EU member state, we rack up to a staggering 1380 individuals per square kilometre. It comes as no surprise
With technology having become very influential, how can harmony be found between it and ecology?
While on the face of it, ecology may seem like a traditionally low-tech field, aspects such as image analysis and machine learning served to increase accuracy and cost-effectiveness over the more traditional, manual methods.
Though such new technologies may have a steeper learning curve, they are proving to be vastly useful.This is made evident from the numerous peer-reviewed papers published each year.
How have plants responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Towards the start of the pandemic, individuals seemed far more aware of the environment around them. Land, water, and air pollution were all hot topics, air pollution was drastically reduced and air quality improved all around the world (Venter et al., 2020). The phenomenon was short-lived upon the relaxation of lockdown and measures.
The European Commission also states that ‘lower air pollution during COVID-19 lockdown may improve crop production’. Due to the short-lived nature of the lockdown measures, we may never know whether prolonged exposure to such improvements in air quality may significantly affect our flora and fauna in the long-term.
If we are to keep up even a few strategies such as working from home where possible, and restricting unnecessary travel, it remains to be seen as to whether global awareness may have any significant effect on our natural biota.