Marine Molecular Biologist: Maha Cziesielski

By Mads St Claire

This week we interview marine molecular biologist, Maha Cziesielski. From jellyfish DNA to corals and climate change, keep reading to find out about the magical molecular world of the ocean and Maha’s journey into marine biology…


Hey Maha, thanks for coming on the GLO interview series! Want to start off by telling us a little about yourself?

Thanks for having me! Well, my name is Maha and I’m originally from Brazil, raised in Berlin and currently based in Saudi Arabia. Here in Saudi I am currently attending the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to complete my PhD studies in Marine molecular biology. If I’m not in the lab I’m either in the gym, dancing or traveling around!

What inspired your journey into marine biology? Who are your marine role models?

I’ve always known I wanted to study marine biology. Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s no one really cared much for the field and I was often told that this was ‘just a phase’. My mom however, never stopped encouraging me. She made sure to buy me all marine science fact books for kids, took me to new aquariums whenever we travelled and was even the one to encourage me to get my dive license! I think my mom played a huge part in feeling inspired by the ocean and to continue on this journey. 

My role models I have to say would be first and foremost my masters and PhD supervisors; Dr. Christ Hauton and Dr. Manuel Aranda. Dr. Hauton first showed me the world of molecular biology in crustaceans, which is where I knew I had to continue in the field. Dr. Aranda is my current professor and besides being someone who I can always talk to, learning a lot through our conversations, he gave me a chance to truly become a marine molecular biologist and played a significant part in my continued passion for it. I’m also a huge fan of Ove Hugh-Guldberg; his papers on climate change impacts on coral reefs from the 90’s were some of the first ones I read. Plus, he applies his expertise to science policy development and management, which I think is amazing!


At GOS we often get asked “how do I get into marine biology”. What was your personal journey into marine biology like?

I think I am a bit of an exception in how I started this career path – it just sort of fell into my lap and became my path. I was eight years old when my mother took me to an aquarium. The underwater world just mesmerised me and I just said ‘Mom, I want to study fish’, to which she explained: ‘That’s called marine biology’. And that was it. At 14 I then learned how to dive and nothing could stop me thereafter. I guess you could say, the ocean itself inspired me. 

At 18 people realized this was not just a joke to me, I was determined to actually become a marine biologist. I have to admit, at the time I had little to no idea what exactly I wanted to do. All I knew is that I wanted to learn as much about the ocean as possible and I trusted that the rest would just figure itself out. And it did. In 2010 I enrolled at the University of Southampton, in Marine Biology. I did my BSc in Ocean Iron Fertilization and realized that this wasn’t what I wanted to continue doing. I think during my studies I spent more time realizing things I did not want to pursuit than the contrary – but learning what it is you don’t like is also important!

Somewhere in my final exams I was cramming for the molecular biology exam and realized: wow, this is insanely cool! It felt like I was learning how to solve the puzzle of life! For my MSc I signed up with Dr. Chris Hauton and spent hours doing lab work and absolutely loving it. I instantly knew, no matter where or on what marine organism I would do molecular biology. In 2015 I then started my PhD in marine molecular biology with Dr. Aranda.

Let’s talk marine molecular biology – could you tell our readers a little about this field and what it involves?

Essentially, it is simply applying molecular tools and understanding to marine organisms. On a molecular, cell to cell, DNA level, all living things are much more connected than many realise. Proteins that exist in humans are found numerous other living beings, sometimes with the same functions, sometimes slightly different. DNA sequences that humans have exist in jellyfish. It’s a field that is incredibly diverse because once you’re in you can apply your knowledge to any other organism on this planet. The fundamental concepts are always similar.

Your PhD research looks at the response of corals to climate change – how are you investigating this?

Climate change is having a number of impacts on our marine environment: increasing temperatures, acidification, pollution to name a few. These stressors are impacting the symbiotic relationship of corals with their algae, Symbiodinium, that lives inside their tissue. We’ve been hearing a lot about coral bleaching in the past years because if increasing drastic events happening. Coral bleaching is the process by which the coral loses the algae; the algae provides the coral with its amazing colors but also with the majority of its energy demand. When the algae leaves, the coral turns white and is bound to die unless the stress can subdue and the algae can return.

We understand these basic physiological responses between corals and algae, but we are only scraping at the surface of understanding how these two partners – plant and animal – communicate to establish, maintain and eventually lose their symbiotic relation. Clearly, each plays a critical role in the survival of the other, but what role exactly is this and how does climate change impact it?


In my PhD I am looking at various molecular layers, namely RNA, protein and epigenomics, to better understand coral-algae symbiosis under heat stress.  I have been investigating how the coral regulates symbiosis, how this regulation is affected under heat stress and what makes some corals more temperature tolerant than others. In order to do this, I work with the coral-algae model organism Aiptasia, a small sea anemone and close relative to corals.

In light of the recent IPCC report, what do you think the future holds for coral reefs? Do you think research like yours may reveal potential mitigation strategies?

I believe our research can help protect and save coral reefs for the future. Understanding the underlying molecular mechanisms of coral-symbiosis and thermotolerance will allow us to aid next generation offspring to be more resilient to climate change. Having said that, I do believe that the only way to truly save our reefs in the long term is to reduce our impacts on the climate and the environment. This will require more than just scientists to do their jobs, it will require politicians and stakeholders to take action. Our research efforts will only carry us so far – if the oceans become inhabitable there is currently little science can do.

What does a typical day in the PhD life look like for you? Are you lab or field based?

I’m a total lab rat. Typically I’ll spend a good chunk of my day in the lab followed by a few hours on the computer writing, reading and analysing. Although now that I am hitting the end phase of my PhD I have definitely converted to a full-time desk job: analysing my final bits of data and writing my thesis. I tend to talk about my lab work a lot on Instagram to show all the exciting tools we use to uncover intricate biological processes!

“If there was ever a time for girls in science, it is now.”

Maha Cziesielski

So You’re in the final months of your PhD, where do you see marine science taking you in the future?

I adore my research. However, I see many scientists doing incredible work and only a fraction of that reaches the general public, even less trickles into political discussion and policy management. I’d like to move towards a career in which I not only advocate for scientists to be heard (and funded) but also one where research is taken into consideration to lead the path of shaping the world of tomorrow.  How exactly I will achieve this, I am not certain yet.

As you know, at GOS we’re HUGE advocates for science communication. We want to know more about your role in sci comms and experience as a writer.

I am also a HUGE advocate for science communication. People need to taught in order to understand; they need to feel connected and passionate about the subject to care, and when they care they will stand to take action. I am a permanent writer at OceanFact and Abcam Tipbox. On occasion, I am also a guest writer at magazines such as SMORE, a kids science magazine. I am also an editor at Reefbites and have my own blog where I talk about marine science and life of a PhD student. 

I’ve mentored 4thgrade for their annual class projects on both plastic pollution and sustainable food sources. I’ve taught many classes on marine science to variety of age groups; from ten year old girl scouts to high school. On my twitter I actively share content relating to marine science, but also science policy and general commentary and advice on life in academia. Finally, I use my Instagram to show what scientists really look like: I travel, read, explore but also spend hours on end in the lab or staring at a screen. I explain my science whenever I can and try to show that failing, falling behind or having a bad day is nothing to be ashamed of; its all part of the process. Especially for young girls it is important for them to see that you don’t have to be a nerd in glasses to be a scientist– women in science are as diverse as in other fields. We are just passionate about knowledge :)

Let’s talk girls in science. What’s your personal experience of being a female in marine science? And what do you think the future holds for women in your field?

If there was ever a time for girls in science, it is now. My generation of women are standing united more than ever. We realize that supporting each other we have a better chance than we did before. So many networks have arisen for women to help each other out and for experienced scientists to help inspire the next generation. When I was a child, there was very little push for women to be scientists. The trend has continuously grown and today we are working on raising a new generation of young women into realizing that they too have what it takes to be a scientist! I think the future is bright, for women across all scientific disciplines. 

 My personal experience in science has mostly related to men treating me different than they do my male colleagues, although this is often also a hierarchy thing where professors treat PhD students with little respect. I’ve been quite fortunate in that the men in my life, both personal and professional, have always empowered me to stand up for myself.

Could you leave us with your favourite quote?

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same” – Nelson Mandela

Thanks Maha for coming on our interview series! Want to hear more from Maha? Check out her instagram feed here: @mtimesj