Third Pod Presents: Sci & Tell – Bärbel Hönisch, “Queen of Boron”

Bärbel Hönisch at AGU’s annual meeting in 2018. Credit: AGU

Bärbel Hönisch, Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences at Columbia University also known as Queen of Boron, transported us millions of years beyond the ice cores to the realm when Greenland had no ice. She took hold of a magical instrument and fell in love with plankton. Diving off One Tree Island near the Great Barrier reef, she conducted research in the blue water, and at times rose amongst a highway of turtles. Painstakingly, she reconstructs the microfossil environment.

This episode was produced and mixed by Shane M Hanlon. Special thanks to Jordana Schmierer for production assistance.


Shane Hanlon               Growing up, I wanted to be a teacher. Or a scientist. Or an engineer. Or maybe an architect. Basically anything that had to do with science, or math, but definitely not English – there’s a saying in my family – Hanlon’s don’t do English. I understand the irony.

I landed the teacher thing with the science thing at a uni not far from home. About 1/2-way through undergraduate, I started working w/ a grad student in the biology department. His office was in the basement of one of the oldest, crappiest building on campus. His car was missing so much paint I didn’t know what color it actually was. He was overworked, underpaid…and I WANTED THAT LIFE! Holy cow did that look amazing. No matter how much was thrown at him, he LOVED it! He had no reason to be happy but loved his life.

Heck w/ this teacher thing – I was going to be a scientist. I applied to grad schools all over the country, got accepted to one, and that’s where I went.

Shane Hanlon:              Everyone has a story, even, or maybe especially, scientists. Science affects each and every one of us. Let’s talk about it. From the American Geophysical Union, I’m Shane Hanlon, and this is Sci & Tell.

Shane Hanlon:              Alright, well, I ended up going through grad school, getting a PhD, then shifting from academia to policy and communication…but that’s a story for another day. Today, though, we have a story for you recorded at our 2018 annual meeting about another scientist who took an, admittedly more dramatic, shift in her career. Our interviewer was Ilyse Vernum.

Bärbel Hönisch:            My name is Bärbel Hönisch. Thank you for having me. I’m an Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University.

Ilyse Vernun:                How did you get to where you are?

Bärbel Hönisch:            That’s a long story. I originally wanted to restore paintings and then that did not work out. Then, I flipped through an encyclopedia one day and I found a whole list of the Max Plank Institutes in Germany. There was one for Marine Microbiology. I kind of skipped the micro and I thought Marine Biology sounds great and there’ll be dolphins and whales in my future.

I wanted to study Marine Biology. I started out with biology and then I went to the University in Bralin and in Bralin they also had a very strong geology department. My boyfriend at the time told me, “Geology sounds great, why don’t you take a course in that?” I studied both. I studied marine biology although mostly biological oceanography which looks more at the smaller organisms. I found out very, very quickly that hardly anybody works on dolphins and whales and almost everybody works on plankton. I fell in love with plankton but I also really, really enjoyed sediment cores and learning about the past from all the information that you can take from sediment cores.

They had… my mentor at the time was also a biologist and went into geochemistry. I really like their field of study where they were reconstructing [inaudible 00:02:28] chemistry in the ocean and they were trying to see what that was doing in terms of climate change, how that was affecting the marine life. Through him, I met a young man who had gotten his Phd at Columbia University, his name is [Abujeed Sanjal]. He was a wonderful, wonderful person, he is a wonderful person but he’s not in science anymore, unfortunately. He taught me how to measure boron isotopes. He and I went to the university actually to the [Gyomine]. We had very long days in the lab. They were essentially starting at 8:00 in the morning, ending at midnight and then doing the same thing again the next day. He gave me all kinds of games and when I got my first analysis or my first signal of an analysis, he called me the “Queen of Boron” and I was hooked.

Ilyse Vernun:                There’s so many things I’d like to ask about. I shall bow to the “Queen of Boron”. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about boron?

Bärbel Hönisch:            Boron is an interesting element that is actually very difficult to analyze because there are only two isotopes of boron and that makes it rather complicated. It’s an interesting element because in seawater, it actually the relative abundance of the two elements of boron or the two species of boron, they change with seawater pH. It turns out that only one of them gets incorporated into marine carbonates. If we can reconstruct what the boron isotopic composition of marine carbonates is then we can reconstruct the acidity of seawater. If we know what the acidity in particular of the surface ocean was then we can reconstruct atmospheric pCO2. We can go back in time and we can actually go beyond the ice cores and find out how high the carbon dioxide levels were and what the climate was at that time. We can look for connections between greenhouse gases and climate change.

Ilyse Vernun:                These are enormous findings and yet there are some who do not believe in economy change still. So, I’m wondering how else you can tell that story, or how else you can help people understand the urgency of the problem that were facing?

Bärbel Hönisch:            That’s a very good question. One… so you asked me early on what was the oldest, one of the oldest samples that I’ve analyzed. The oldest samples I’ve analyzed are about fifty six million years old. They go back to a time in earth history that is called the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. It is a time when temperatures on the planet warmed somewhere between 5 and 9 degrees Celsius worldwide. About 5 degrees in the tropics and 9 degrees in the high latitudes.

If we keep burning fossil fuels as we’re doing it right now, we might see something like 900 or maybe even 1000 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What is very different at that time is that it took about three to five thousand years to get to that point. Then, what is actually more disconcerting about this whole situation is that it took about a hundred seventy thousand years to recover from that time. When we’re putting this into perspective with today, we are creating the same situation in about a hundred or two hundred years and were actually doing the same thing that happened at that time, ten times faster than it happened. If we look back at the ecosystem changes at that time, we can probably project that we will see much larger ecosystem changes in the future.

Ilyse Vernun:                I would like you to take these last minutes to talk to me about something that I haven’t yet asked. Something that you came here thinking that you really wanted people to know.

Bärbel Hönisch:            I actually get to travel around the world and meet really wonderful, amazing people, but also get to see wonderful places. Through this work, I’ve also met some wonderful colleagues from Australia and 3 years ago I went on my first sabbatical. We started that sabbatical on One Tree Island, which is a tiny little island that is just on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s an island that takes two days to get to. You first have to go to Heron Island and then from there, you have to wait until the tide is just right and they can actually take a tiny little boat to get to One Tree Island. One Tree Island is a place that nobody can actually go to, other than scientists. Scientists are only allowed to go if they actually have a project. You can’t just go there and check it out. It’s a very special place. At the time when we were there, we were three scientists and two house keepers and about ten thousand birds. They were very, very loud. The most wonderful thing of this entire trip… I only was allowed to go there because my colleague at the time with whom I was doing a sabbatical. He actually had a project working on that island. We had to drill some cores into the reef. We also had plenty of time to move around and walk around the island. The island is very, very small. It has some trees on it but you can walk around in twenty minutes. We were told that the nicest diving and snorkeling, we didn’t have any dive gear there, was beyond the reef crest. You basically have to walk out on the reef and then there… it’s really on top of the reef and that’s where the waves are breaking. You have to kind of duck underneath the waves and then when the next wave comes, you duck underneath again. It’s a bit, it’s actually a little bit scary to get out there because if a wave hits you and you don’t do the right thing, it really smashes you into the reef. Once you’re out there, it’s just the most amazing reef that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It was just a highway of turtles going in and out and there were so many different organisms. This is just, this was … When I saw that I thought okay, I think I’m ready to die now. It would be okay if I died because this is just such a wonderful thing to see. I really enjoyed that experience and that’s something that I never would have been able to do if I hadn’t been working in science.

Shane Hanlon:              I’m trained as a herpetologist, meaning that I studied amphibians and reptiles. But I’m not talking about sea turtles that live in picturesque settings adjacent to beautiful reefs. I’m talking about things that live in swamps and bogs – really stinky and gross places. I’m super jealous of Bärbel and wanna thank her for sharing her story w/ us. Thanks also to Ilyse Vernum for conducting this interview.

If you like what you’ve heard, stay tuned for more episodes tucked in amongst your regular Third Pod episodes.

From this scientist in the studio, to all of you out there in the world, thanks for listening to our stories.





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