Scientist from down under makes waves

Dr. Debbie Lindell, a marine biologist, is one of 24 Israelis to receive a 1.5 million Euro grant from the European Research Council.

Debbie Lindell 88 224 (photo credit: Yosi Shrem)
Debbie Lindell 88 224
(photo credit: Yosi Shrem)
Israel is a small country with a big name. It is known worldwide as a leader in cutting-edge technology and in state defense. It is also known worldwide as a country with high ideals and difficult circumstances. Last month, Israel earned a new name for itself - this time, in the science hall of fame. The European Research Council selected 24 Israeli scientists - out of 9,000 European applicants - to be awarded the Starting Independent Researcher Grant (SIRG). One of those scientists is Dr. Debbie Lindell, an Australian-born marine biologist at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Lindell was awarded 1.5 million Euros toward her research of ocean bacteria and viruses. Winning this grant, she said, gave recognition to her field. "[It shows that] the direction I've decided to take my research in is an important and worthy one, that's addressing important questions." The council called upon young scientists who had finished their PhD studies between two and nine years ago to apply for the grant. Out of 9,000 applicants from throughout Europe, between 200 and 300 will eventually be chosen. "They were looking for projects that were ambitious," Lindell said. That meant high risk and high reward - projects that were innovative and often technology-driven, too. In order to explain her studies clearly, Lindell started with some background information. The ocean contains bacteria that carry out photosynthesis, a process in which they convert inorganic carbons - like the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) - into organic matter. That organic matter is eaten by sea creatures, thus becoming the base of the oceanic food pyramid. In addition, by producing oxygen and consuming CO2, the bacteria help keep the environment stable. Lindell works with cyanobacteria - bacteria that carry out photosynthesis, create organic matter and produce oxygen. Ocean viruses continually attack cyanobacteria, but the bacteria have managed to survive and evolve so that they and the viruses can co-exist. At this stage, science has no proven explanation for how these organisms interact without one destroying the other. This is where Lindell's work comes in. Her research has two primary areas of concern. The first is to understand how the viruses take over the bacteria and turn them into viral production factories. The second looks at how the bacteria try to defend themselves from the viruses. "Understanding how the bacteria defend themselves allows us to understand how they continue to exist and how they continue to be the basis of the oceanic food web, carry out photosynthesis and so on," Lindell said. "If we are successful in finding new mechanisms of taking over bacterial cells, then it's possible that this could lead to new antibacterial products, instead of antibiotics. But that's a long way down the track," she says. All that depends on the outcome of this research project. Lindell's grant money - which she will receive over five years - will mainly go toward manpower, equipment and disposables like plastic test tubes and enzymes. She will work with a team of scientists at the Technion in Haifa. Her crew includes one research fellow and four PhD students, as well as a German microanalysis expert who will work part-time on the project. Growing up in Australia, Lindell says, she always loved the ocean. Her family vacations often included camping out at caravan parks that had rivers or streams creeping through them. She would sit by the banks and "listen to the music of the water," Lindell reminisces. "The water relaxes me, it calms me." Lindell grew up in Melbourne and was involved with numerous Jewish youth movements, particularly Bnei Akiva and B'nai B'rith. She took a year off after high school and traveled to Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz, working in the avocado and mango fields and studying Hebrew. That year, she decided she wanted to make aliya. She returned to Australia and began studying mathematics and biology at Melbourne University, while working as the national secretary of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS), to save up for the big move. After a year and a half, she made aliya. Now, she and her Israeli partner, Dror, have two children - Gilad, 14, and Danielle, 10. "Israel is an amazing place... It's a Jewish country run by Jews, so you don't have to worry about being different. But also Israel's existence is important and one should contribute to it. [My way of contributing] is coming and living my life here." After making aliya in 1985, Lindell completed her BA in biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When she finished her degree, she saw an advertisement for a research assistant job in Eilat. The research was looking at the relationship between coral reef and fish. At that time, she was debating whether or not to continue her biology studies, so she applied for the job, hoping it would provide her with some clarity. That job ended up being a turning point in Lindell's life. "When you dive, you see this amazing diversity of organisms. It's just such a beautiful and quiet world. So different from what you see on land. Just trying to understand the interactions between organisms in the coral reef was an amazing opportunity for me." From there, Lindell developed an interest in understanding the oceans. She finished her MA and completed a doctorate in Biological Oceanography in 2001. "One of the things I really liked about Israel initially was that it was a social country that worried about the people," said Lindell. But now, she worries about the direction in which Israel's leaders are taking it. Over the last few years, she says, funding has been going to the wrong places and the education system is suffering. "The allocations of funds - the priorities - need to move back to the people in the country," she said. This emphasizes the importance of grants such as the one funded by the European Research Council. "Providing a large amount of money to a single lab enables us to do research on an international scale without which - unfortunately, because of the funding situation in Israel - we wouldn't be able to do," Lindell said. "It's really going to improve [Israel's] chances of doing technology-driven science using the newest techniques and technologies. Without this funding, we would have to do [the research] much more slowly, less efficiently, in less depth and less rigorously. This [funding] enables us to do what we think is necessary without having to worry about where that money is going to come from," she said. "The fact that 24 Israelis got funded [by this grant] is an amazing feat for Israeli science," Lindell adds. "It says a lot for [its] potential that so many young scientists got this grant."