Dr Maayan Yehudai
What is your field of expertise?
I am a marine biogeochemist specializing in paleoceanography and paleoclimate. My research delves into the intricate interactions among the atmosphere, ocean, and land, shaping the climate system.
Through the analysis of paleo-climate archives like deep ocean fossils and coral reefs, I uncover insights into historical climatic shifts that were influenced by ocean circulation and biological activity.
Tell us briefly about your academic path?
I completed my undergraduate degree in Geology at the Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. After a one-year break where I worked as a waitress and produced an art magazine with my friends in Jerusalem, I continued to an M.Sc. in Oceanography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I studied the use of coral reefs as indicators for sea level changes and past hydrological coastal settings. As I was finishing My Msc, I was offered a dean’s scholarship from Columbia university and moved to New York to start my PhD. Here I deepened my paleoceanographic exploration by looking at changes in ocean circulation over glacial-interglacial timescales as well as the effect of global dust supply changes on oceanic ecosystems. After graduating, I continued for a postdoc position at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, which is also my current position, where I work with nitrogen isotopes to explore the connection between past climate change and biogeochemical cycles.
What type of research do you do (what excites you mostly)?
My primary research areas encompass marine organic and inorganic geochemistry, paleoceanography, and paleoclimate. My ongoing research delves into biogeochemical cycles in the ocean, past and present, and their role in environmental and climate changes, with a focus on the nitrogen cycle. This builds upon my MSc and PhD work, which included coral reef dating for sea-level reconstruction, paleohydrology, and studying ocean circulation and global dust supply changes.
My research involves field excursions, ocean sediment core and coral sampling, stable and radiogenic isotope analysis in the laboratory, and mass spectrometry. During my PhD, I employed Neodymium- isotopes from ocean sediments to trace Pleistocene Atlantic Ocean circulation and ice sheet-related weathering, particularly during the Mid-Pleistocene Transition.
My ongoing projects employ fossil-bound nitrogen isotopes to explore shifts in global oceanic nitrogen fixation from the Pliocene warm period into the Pleistocene, coinciding with Northern Hemisphere Glaciation onset. Furthermore, I utilize stable isotope analysis on Gulf of Aqaba corals to trace natural and anthropogenic disruptions to the region's nitrogen cycle during the 20th century and late Holocene.
What are your professional plans/ aspirations?
My aspiration is to emerge as a prominent figure in the realm of paleoclimate and paleoceanography, while igniting enthusiasm among younger generations for these evolving disciplines, especially within Israel. Looking ahead, my professional trajectory involves merging paleoceanographic and paleoclimate geochemical tools with biogeochemical and thermodynamic modelling to illuminate the mechanisms steering biogeochemical cycles in historical and contemporary settings.
My ongoing research has unveiled the remarkable potential of fossil-bound and aquatic nitrogen isotopes analysis as trailblazing tracers for understanding both past and present biogeochemical cycling. My research team's forthcoming endeavors will revolve around investigating the delicate balance between N2-fixation, the primary source of oceanic nitrogen prevalent at oceanic gyre surfaces, and denitrification, the main nitrogen sink occurring at intermediate depths with restricted oxygen availability. By delving into these inquiries, I aim to deepen our comprehension of modern and historical biogeochemical processes.
How was your experience as a postdoc so far?
My experience as a postdoc has been both challenging and rewarding. On one hand, I've had the opportunity to work alongside leading researchers in my field, contributing to cutting-edge projects and expanding my knowledge in ways I hadn't imagined before. The freedom to delve deep into my research interests and explore new ideas has been invigorating. On the other hand, the demands of balancing research and administrative responsibilities with starting a family in a foreign country have sometimes felt overwhelming. The pressure to produce high-quality research outputs while also networking, collaborating, and potentially mentoring students can be quite intense.
Despite the challenges, I have grown immensely as a researcher and a field scientist. I have learned to manage my time more efficiently, enhance my analytical skills, and communicate my findings more effectively to both peers and broader audiences. The camaraderie among fellow postdocs and the supportive environment of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry have made the journey enjoyable. Overall, my experience as a postdoc has allowed me to significantly diversify my research niche, develop a stronger professional network, and prepare for the next phase of my career. I am excited about the potential impact of my work and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Can you give an advice to your younger self or a new postdoc?
If I were to offer advice to a new postdoc or my younger self, it would be: Embrace both the challenges and opportunities that come with being a postdoc. This is a time of intense growth and learning, so do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and do not be alarmed if you are not always sure about what lies behind the next corner. Uncertainty is an inherent aspect of the academic path, as research outcomes, funding, and career trajectories are often unpredictable, but you can find solace in the constant gradual accumulation of knowledge and experience.
Setting clear research and career goals and having a (flexible) roadmap will help you stay focused and motivated. Build meaningful networks and relationships within and outside your research groups and seek guidance and feedback from your mentors, colleagues and peers. Publishing strategically is also very important at this point of your career. While quantity matters, quality is crucial. Focus on producing impactful research rather than just churning out papers.
Remember that a postdoc is about personal and professional growth. Enjoy the journey and make the most of the valuable experiences that come your way by celebrating small victories which contribute to your overall experience of progress.
What is one underappreciated thing you wish everyone knew about your research
One underappreciated aspect of paleo-oceanography and paleoclimate is the extent to which they unveil the Earth's hidden history and provide critical insights into the future. By deciphering the archives embedded in ancient sediments and fossils, these fields reveal the intricate dance between ocean currents, atmospheric conditions, and planetary temperatures spanning millions of years.
The most astonishing revelation lies in the ability of the geochemistry studies in oceanic and aquatic archives to act as a time machine, transporting us back to epochs when Earth's landscapes and climate were vastly different. It showcases the remarkable adaptability of the Earth's systems and underscores the natural variability that has characterized its history. This understanding is pivotal as it places our current climate challenges within the context of Earth's resilience. The intersection of paleoceanography and paleoclimate exemplifies the interconnectedness of our planet's systems and emphasizes the urgency of responsible environmental stewardship to safeguard the world we share.
These disciplines illuminate the consequences of human-induced climate change on a geologic timescale, emphasizing the urgency of addressing these issues. The value this research lies in its capacity to blend intricate geological processes with the urgent need for sustainable global actions, fostering a deeper appreciation for our planet's past, present, and the collective responsibility we bear for its future.
Can you share any professional or personal challenges that you have overcome?
I have faced many challenges during my PhD and postdoc journey, especially as an older, international single female student. I have overcome feelings of isolation and powerlessness within a system that seem to be build for younger peers. I have also faced a lot of bias where my assertiveness was met with different perceptions due to my gender and foreign origin.
To surmount these barriers, I initiated a Gender and Diversity discussion group at my institute, forging a community where diverse voices are valued and safe dialogue thrives. Overcoming initial resistance, this effort and collective work eventually prompted candid institutional discussions about the significance of belonging, particularly for underrepresented individuals.
As I moved on to my postdoc, balancing the demands of starting a family while maintaining a high standard of research have also become a formidable challenge that requires careful juggling of responsibilities and priorities. Finally, in academia, facing a multitude of rejections is a common and often disheartening experience, but I have learned that resilience and persistence are key to eventual success and that I can draw strength from my genuine passion for my field, a supportive network and the strong believe in my capabilities.