Research group MPEA

Marine Phytoplankton Ecology and Applications

Meet the Researcher: Christien Laber


The MPEA research group is an international group of researchers with diverse research backgrounds, talents and interests. We welcome Christien into our group in 2020 as a lab technician, and he is now joining us as a post-doc in April, 2021. Christien’s background both as a scientist and a musician makes him uniquely situated to communicate our marine phytoplankton research to the world in a way that people and children understand. He has been essential to our AlgoKidz project, and continues to contribute to our work in outreach, research and beyond. 

His blog, Music of Science, is dedicated to research communication through music. 


An interview with Christien Laber:

What is your background as a marine biologist? (your PhD dissertation, where you got your start?)

I have been studying phytoplankton for my entire career as a marine biologist but I have had varied interests since I first started working with them during my undergraduate studies.  My first experience was working with a couple harmful algae bloom (HAB) forming species in the coastal oceans of the United States.  The first was Karlodinium veneficum which is responsible for extensive fish kills that occur in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.  I was studying how these algae modulate their toxin production when grown in varying light conditions to help explain the variability of their toxicity in the environment.  The other HAB I studied was Karenia brevis which is responsible for the infamous Florida red tide that closes beaches and cause respiratory and eye irritation.  I worked on a project developing the discriminatory power of robots that optically detect special algal pigments used identify K. brevis among natural phytoplankton communities in the Gulf of Mexico and warn scientists of upcoming blooms.

For my PhD, I focused on an algae species many of us call the ‘rock star’ of the ocean, Emiliania huxleyi.  The nickname comes from the ornate calcium carbonate plates that cover the cell called coccoliths.  These liths are constantly produced and shed from cells and produce a beautiful chalky turquoise color in the water when the algae are blooming.  The color is so distinct, that these blooms are easily observed from space and satellite images regularly show these swirling blooms extend for thousands of square kilometers.  I was studying how these blooms can become infected by a virus specific to E. huxleyi, and what happens to the carbon that composes the billions of cells in these blooms when they lyse, and die during advanced infection events.  The research that came out of my PhD provided some of the first evidence that algal viruses can increase the efficiency of carbon export out of the surface ocean and into the deep ocean.  We suggested this process is stimulated by sticky polysaccharides produced by the cells as a byproduct of viral infection that stimulates the formation of quickly sinking aggregates of dead/dying cells and their coccoliths.  And it’s been quite exciting to see other studies corroborate our evidence that viruses can stimulate flux as well, as its quite opposite of the suggested paradigm just a decade ago.

How does working in the States or other countries differ to working in Sweden?

So far, the things that stick out to me the most are the very international nature of our community and just how much vacation we get here!  I think the emphasis on having a good work-life balance is very welcoming, and it’s good to have reminders now and then that Swedes take this seriously.   In the US, I think many people are limited to getting 2 weeks paid vacation per year or less, which is quite unfortunate.

Here in Sweden, I have also really enjoyed getting to meet and work with so many people from so many different parts of the world!  Working in the US, most of my colleagues were also Americans.  Lovely as we Americans can be, I have been able to learn so much about working as a global citizen with colleagues who are largely also internationals.


You’re a great singer-songwriter! How did you develop your science communication music, how long have you been doing it?

I guess the idea of writing music about science, and oceanography in particular, first started coming to me late in my PhD when I was listening to a lot of Stan Rogers.  He wrote some beautiful folk ballads about maritime travel, work, and lifestyle with exquisitely crafted lyrics that really pull you into the music.  And so, as a musician, I started wondering if I could do something similar but describe the experience of doing science at sea instead.  My first song was ‘The Pursuit of Knowledge’ which I wrote about the North Atlantic Aerosol and Marine Ecosystems Study (NAAMES) that I had recently participated in and served as a test of the concept.  I didn’t know if the science would make a particularly compelling story or not, but when I was done I was quite happy with the end result.  And I guess some others who were part of the NAAMES project also quite liked it, and so I threw together an accompanying video so that we could publish it for the public to see.  The really fun part was that NASA (who funded the NAAMES study) caught on and decided to publish the music video on their social media platforms.  So I very quickly got to see the music become an effective communication platform, and with some positive feedback decided to write a few more songs so far.


Word on the street is that you’re headed up to the Arctic this summer for a 3(2) month long research excursion. Tell us more!

Yes, I’m very excited about this.  I will be going to the Arctic with several other members of our team to investigate picophytoplankton, the smallest photosynthesizing organisms on the planet, and their contribution to sustaining the marine ecosystem in the Arctic.  We are conducting this study as part of the Synoptic Arctic Survey, an international study that will be making a comprehensive investigation of the current state of the Arctic ecosystem from 2020-2022 and assess how it is changing.  Picophytoplankton make up an important fraction of the primary production that supports the arctic food web, but their distribution and diversity are still poorly characterized.  As a rapidly warming and changing system, we also need to understand how the assemblage of picophytoplankton will change over the next century and impact ecosystem dynamics.  So the sampling and experiments we will be conducting will try to provide some answers to these questions, as well as a good foundation for research going forward.


What are you most excited about for this excursion? Any nerves?

Well I suppose one can only hope to see a polar bear or two, but not get too close of course!  Yes, I think I’m most excited to just absorb the remoteness of the area and the beauty of the sea ice and whatever little (or big) creatures are hanging out in the area as we travel through.

We will also be on the icebreaker research vessel Oden for the expedition, which may take us near the North Pole by cutting through sea ice.  This will also be exciting, and I do have faith in the ship’s design, but it will perhaps also be a bit intimidating to have tons of sea ice pressing against the ship’s hull as we cruise along!


  1. We’re really happy to have you onboard. ? Welcome! (a bit belated!)

Thank you very much! Tack så mycket!

-Caroline Littlefield & Christien Laber

Workshops on Water Use Led by Prof. Catherine Legrand during Sustainability Week


In connection with Sustainability Week / Kalmarsund Week, two different digital workshops were held with the theme of sustainable and efficient use of industrial water.

The workshops were led by Catherine Legrand, professor of marine ecology at the Faculty of Health and Environment and Jörgen Forss, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Technology. Around 60 people from business, organizations and authorities, joined  representatives from Linnaeus University, to discuss industry’s water use from local to international needs and challenges. IVL Swedish Environmental Institute, Vattenmyndigheten Södra Östersjön, Mercatus Engineering Vimmerby, Mörbylånga water industry and doctoral students from Linnaeus University shared interesting perspectives that were discussed further in workshops based on experiences, needs and future challenges.

Water scarcity is a strong factor that requires new analyses and processes. The statement “reality goes faster than calculations” became food for thought, and a driver to discuss the international issues involving water, including the fact that water problems lead to conflicts and should be dealt with globally.

It is clear that industry partners at the workshops are looking to find solutions for efficient water use.  But how do we do it best? Incentives, behavior change, skills development, exchanges of experience, legislation, water recycling concepts, and solution templates to inspire each other are some examples. The importance of cooperation and communication between business, authorities, municipalities and academia was a recurring argument. Together we challenge for new and effective solutions!

See Swedish version of this article here! 

More information on Catherine Legrand’s “Knowledge Environment: Water” for Linnaeus University: 

hallbart-o-effektivt-anvandande-av-industrvatten-resume-002 (2)

AlgoKidz: Bringing the world of algae, the sea, and sustainability to children


For several years, researchers in our MPEA group’s Algoland project have researched the ability of algae to clean flue gas from air and clean water from nitrogen and phosphorus.  Now, we are bringing the world of algae, the sea and sustainability to children in Sweden and beyond with our new outreach project: AlgoKidz aimed at children aged preschool to grade 3.

This past Friday, 11th September, AlgoKidz was launched in the third grade classes of Lindöskolan in Kalmar, where students learned and sang about Algo, the big little superhero who lives in the sea. They even had the pleasure to taste some green “Algo Shots,” which received mixed reviews from the taste-testers!



The AlgoKidz project is designed to be an educational toolbox for teachers of young children. It includes a homepage with the story about Algo, from which teachers can download coloring books, stories, stickers, a filmed educational program where Catherine teaches about algae in a way children can understand,  and even a music video starring MPEA and EEMiS’s very own researcher, Christien Laber! The material is free to use for everyone and completely free of charge.

The idea of integrating art with science is not a new one, but one that we are implementing in a wholly original way, incorporating music, art and digital elements to engender ocean literacy for a new generation of thinkers, researchers and world citizens.

“This was the starting shot and we have a few more school visits planned, but the idea with Algo Kidz is that you as an educator can use the material in your teaching on your own, says Catherine. “Algo Kidz is a good example where science and art work together to increase water knowledge.”

The research that forms the basis for Algo Kidz is conducted within Linnaeus University’s project Algoland, Marine Phytoplankton Ecology and Applications, Eemis, and Knowledge Environment: Water. The project is based on the exhibition “Microalgae – The environmental heroes of our time,” which is produced and curated by the LNU’s The Cultural University.

AlgoKidz is a great way to kick off the UN #DecadeofOceanScience ! 


See some photos from the AlgoKidz launch party!


Link to Algo Kidz website:

Link to: Christien Laber’s Music of Science webpage 

Link to LNU Press release:

P4Kalmar Förmiddag med Kalle Johansson, interview with Christien LaberAlgoKidz launch
Time 04.50 till 24.10

Contact and more information about the project
Catherine Legrand, Professor of Marine Ecology, 070-438 06 18,
Christina Dahlgren, artium director, 070-572 26 56,

Caroline Littlefield Karlsson, coordinator, 0732318660