Photos provided by Lindsay Darjany

Lindsay Darjany: Critters, Global Catastrophe and Marine Biology

By Andres Leon

Lindsay Darjany is a marine biology lecturer for the biological sciences department at Long Beach State University. She is outwardly passionate about her study and she often teaches students who are fulfilling a general education requirement. I speak as a student who took one of her classes, BIOL 153, Introduction to Marine Biology. I was very engaged even as someone who is intimidated by anything STEM related.

She is known to show off her collection of interesting animals during class while classes were solely online. Before digging into her background, I wanted to know about what other animals she currently has.

"I have my stickbugs, my Madagascar Hissing cockroaches, a California Desert tortoise now, I also had a giant millipede that I gave away because I had too many things to take care of. And a dog. For now."

I then learned that the stick bug that died recently was most likely not the same one I saw in the fall of 2020.

"They only live about six to seven months, towards the end of that, they'll lay their eggs and then die. Then that new generation takes a couple months or so to hatch. They're asexual so they don't neccesarily need a mate to lay eggs. They'll lay hundreds of eggs. I only had three so I had a couple hundred eggs. I keep about 75, and of those, about 30 will hatch, then maybe ten will survive. I have some friends that I give some to."

What fuels her ongoing interest in the subject is her education path that led her here.

"In my undergrad I went to the University of California, Santa Cruz in Northern California and that's where I got my Bachelor of Science in marine biology. There, I worked for an intertidal invertebrate monitoring group. We went up and down the coast looking for sea stars, urchins, worms, mussels and we used that as an indicator of how the overall ecosystem was changing. I did that all through college. I got to go to Tahiti to study for a little bit after that," Darjany said.

Following her undergrad education, she worked for a phytoplankton ecology lab where she studied diatoms, dinoflagellates and protists. Eventually, it led her to having a two month stint in Antarctica, studying microorganisms and sea ice while there.

"That was at the University of Southern California for about two and a half years or so and then after that I went back to school to get my masters. I was actually a little bit older than a lot of my peers because I had taken two to three years off," Darjany said.

Darjany then recollected her time going back to graduate school.

"I went back to grad school and I'm a little overambitious so my thesis project was very complex, it took almost three and a half years. Normally they want you in and out at two years, and I'm a pleaser, so when people ask me if I can do something I say, 'yes of course I can do that, do you think I'm capable? Like, of course I'm capable.' So I had a multi-faceted project for my master's thesis. I got hired at Cal State right after that. They hired me as a lecturer teaching classes, lab coordinating. I haven't left."

However, employment at LBSU hasn't stopped her from staying involved in other jobs relating to marine biology. For a while she worked for an organization called the Southern California Coastal Water Research project, a group that focused on studying microbes in the local marine environment as well as water bodies in general, including rivers, outfalls and even sewers. Darjany recalls what she learned:

"Now instead of testing people for covid, what they're doing is they're taking sewage water from the flush of your toilet, and they can sample that for coronavirus mRna, from that they can detect amounts and quantities. It's called microbial source tracking. They can figure which areas of California are more heavily inundated with the virus which is really cool. They can figure out how much is in the area and where it's coming from. There's a lot of cool stuff you can do with poop water."

Darjany then added what other types of studies could be done with studying sewage water.

"I'm not part of this work, but there's a whole field called toxicology and one thing they can do is look at birth control remains like tetracycline in sewage water. It's actually getting into our water system and it's having an effect on the fish population. It's making them become more female because of that added female hormone switching the endocrine system of fish. They can also look at which drugs are present in the water system. They can look at Los Angeles county for crack cocaine and Seattle for opioids. It's really fascinating what they can do with water chemistry."

Of course, studying today’s water chemistry comes with an impossible subject to avoid, the exponential growth of microplastics in our ecosystem.

"The world of microplastics and plastics is on the cusp of having it be a really big focus because it's causing a lot of issues. Once it threatens sperm count it automatically becomes 'more' important of an issue to a lot of people. Sorry to say but a lot of people in power are men and so when they hear something like that they're like, 'woah! watch out.' It's really interesting and plastics are a really big problem."

She reflected on how growing debris from human activity has begun to impact her study, making it unavoidable.

"It's been a weird turning point for me because my focus has always been on biology. I saw some species of dolphins recently when I was on Santa Cruz Island, I saw some humpback whales breaching and it never gets old to me but as I've progressed in my career in marine science, I can't ignore the plastics in the ocean. When I go to take a sample of the microbes, guess what's also floating around in there? Bits of fishing line, and plastics from toys. It's rampant." Darjany then remembered a recent study she read that added onto this existential threat.

"Last summer there was a paper published that found plastics in a human placenta. So we're basically sitting with plastics in our body while our babies are developing in our womb. It messes with your endocrine system, it can cause a lot of trouble, fertility issues, the expression of progesterone and testosterone and how that produces sperm and the quality of eggs. Altogether it feels like our Earth is basically saying we're in crisis."

She then continued on the issue of plastics and how many factors around the world are starting to align.

"The pace that we're extracting these fossil fuels and turning them into plastic and destroying parts of the Amazon for farming, It's just not sustainable. 2050 has been the predictor year for when we all go downhill. If you look at a lot of statistical models, the year 2050 is when we run out of fresh water, or have enough land to sustain feeding people and meat consumption. Not to be a Debbie downer, but we're going to have to make some changes."

Debbie downer-ism aside, I asked her what she loved about teaching marine biology.

"I love that you guys are one mile from the beach, so to me it's really important to foster that sense of wonder for my students. I want them to 'oo' and 'aa' and get excited so that they become stewards of the environment they live next to. What I like is turning you all into stewards of the marine environment. It's very special to see that love of our ocean, its inhabitants, form so that whatever your trajectory is, whether its public relations or accounting, you can always have that in the back of your head that there's this wonderful world full of amazing creatures and places that we're responsible for."

Here are her parting messages for any future marine biologists.

"Just go for it and never look back. Once you start, there's always opportunities to go deeper and deeper to get your hands wet. Literally."