From skies to seas  

Master of Science student Lisa Wolf might have taken the long route in pursuit of her marine biology passion, but she has followed her dream around the globe—from a career as a flight attendant, to beginning her Master’s online from her home in Munich, to snorkeling on the South Coast. 

Lisa Wolf researching seaweed at the Wellington University Coastal Ecology Lab

After her lifelong fascination with marine biology was discouraged by an unsupportive high school biology teacher, Lisa started university lacking in confidence. Instead of pursuing her passion, she opted instead for a degree in Sports Science—something she felt was more within her comfort zone.   

“I'm a very outdoorsy person, and I love sports. But once I started studying Sports Science I realised ‘Oh no, this is not where my passion is, and I should really follow my dreams’—I knew Sports Science wasn’t the right thing for me.” 

Having decided that pursuing a degree in biology was her goal, she then had a large gap before she was able to start her studies the next academic year.  

“Now I have a half year, what am I going to do? And my dad said, ‘you should become a flight attendant, make some money and see the world’. So I did, and I ended up flying for one year. It was a really, really good time, and I saw a lot. I'm so happy that I got that opportunity, but I knew studying biology was the path for me.” 

While Lisa knew she really wanted to pursue marine biology in particular, the subject wasn’t offered as an undergraduate major at her university. She was however able to take up two marine biology papers that were offered at undergraduate level. 

“Munich is at the very southern point of Germany, which means that the closest sea is actually in Italy. So, if you want to drive up to the Baltic Sea, it's much further than just going to Italy—it's actually really far away. But still they offered marine biology courses, with field trips to France, Slovenia, and to the Baltic Sea.” 

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic she was only able to go on one field trip during her undergraduate studies. This field trip introduced her to a professor with a connection to the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology.  

“That led to me working there, in a section called Arthropoda, and researching pycnogonids—sea spiders. The professor,  who I was working with on one of these field trips, saw my interest in marine biology, and in pycnogonids especially, and offered me a job working in the collection and identifying species.” 

Her research into sea spiders inspired her to research the field of symbiosis—an interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both—which is what led her to her Master’s supervisor, Professor Simon Davy—a renowned expert in the field, and one of the reasons she chose to study in Wellington.  

“My Master’s research looks into the unexplored symbiosis between brown macroalgae (seaweed) and a particular species of sea anemone.” 

There’s been very little formal research done on this relationship—NIWA has reported the two species co-existing, but there is no information on what exactly each organism is gaining from the relationship. 

“We don't know if the sea anemones prefer one particular seaweed, or which kind of nutrients they're sharing. If it's a nutritional symbiosis, it would include the exchange of nutrients between partners.” 

If this symbiotic relationship is proven, its contribution to the health of both organisms could be assisting with the response of both the seaweed and sea anemones to different stressors—including marine heatwaves caused by climate change.  

“Seaweeds are very important for many reasons, including biodiversity and absorption of carbon. They serve as both a nursery and habitat for fish, and are therefore important for fisheries and communities. I mean, if there was no seaweed, biodiversity would be hugely decreased, everything would be changed. It's a foundation species within this ecosystem.”  

After two back-to-back winters, Lisa’s excited for some warmer weather, and to get into the ocean for some snorkeling.  

“Being close to the ocean is something I love about Wellington, and obviously I’m looking forward to snorkeling. I'm also so excited about doing lab work—focusing on one specific question and discovering answers. My research might have the potential to have such a big impact, or not, we just don’t know yet. When it comes to biology every little step on the journey is important.”  

Lisa really enjoys undertaking her research in Te Kura Mātauranga Koiora—School of Biological Sciences (SBS), where she shares office space with other postgraduate students and gets to learn all about their specialties.  

“I’m loving being in this environment. Most of the time I'm just sitting in SBS surrounded by so many biologists from different fields, and you have nice, interesting conversations and you can make friends really easily. 

“My supervisor [Simon Davy] and I get along very well, I don't feel stressed. He's helping me in the perfect way. He gives me guidance, but he also wants me to do most of the work. Well, all of the work [laughs].” 

Lisa says her advice for people considering postgraduate study would be to consider what your true passions are and follow them.  

“My work as a flight attendant allowed me to see the world, and got me inspired and motivated. It really showed me that people can do so many amazing things—especially looking back at my insecurity with following my passion, my dream. Sometimes I wish that I had followed it right away. But on the other hand, it was meant to be, I was meant to have this period of growth before I started what I really wanted to do, and I'm really glad actually. I learnt a lot about the role I could play in the world.” 

Lisa Wolf working in the Wellington University Coastal Ecology lab
Exterior of the Wellington University Coastal Ecology Lab