After studying zoology at Ghent University, biologist Karline Soetaert gradually specialised in computer science as well. ‘Unfortunately, the value of mathematics is still underestimated! I have learnt to appreciate computer science and mathematics as the instruments that enable us to really understand the data. We can collect as much data as we want, but we can usually only understand it after it has been inserted in mathematical models.’
‘One of the fields that I recently performed calculations on was the effect of fishing that disrupts the seabed. For some time now, Dutch fishermen have been allowed to fish using electrical fishing gear, the so-called pulse fishing. We examined the effects of the various types of fishing gear on the ploughing of the seabed and the release of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus from the sediment. The analyses of field observations reveal that fishing gear that moves just above the seabed and that uses electrodes to startle the fish is somewhat less harmful to the seabed than traditional fishing gear with heavy tickler chains.'
‘We also perform calculations on the effects of mussel farming or seaweed farms in the Eastern Scheldt. Both have an effect on the spread of nutrients in the water. In combination with hydrodynamic models, geochemical and ecological models can reveal the effects of these activities on the delta ecosystem.’
‘The growing number of wind farms on the North Sea will also have an impact on the geochemistry and consequently on the biology of the sea. Mussels grow on the masts of wind turbines and filter particles from the water. Additionally, the functioning of the seabed will change due to the arrival of all those hard structures.’
‘In hydrodynamic models, we work with physical processes such as the flow of water. These models have already demonstrated their value. The next challenge is to capture ecological processes in mathematical terms that are just as reliable, so that we can also predict the effects of our interventions on the ecology in a responsible manner before we cause irreversible effects.Read more +
I am interested in the interplay between physics, ecology, and biogeochemistry in the marine environment. I have worked on many topics, including deepsea nematodes, estuarine zooplankton, estuarine biogeochemistry, early diagenesis, benthic and pelagic foodwebs, environmental modelling, software development and differential equations. Usually there is some computational aspect involved in my work -this may be in the form of mechanistic (ecosystem) models, or some other number-crunching procedure that involves computers and programming. Indeed, my favorite working spot is behind my computer, although the occasional field work definitely has its charm!
I am a firm believer of open, transparent and reusable science, which –in my view- should include documenting the entire chain of research, from data up to the publication. This involves sharing also the raw data and the software and scripts that compute on these data.
Open science starts with open source software, so for more than 10 years, I have contributed to the open source software community, creating around 20 R-packages that are available on CRAN. To make the every-day scientific data analysis or modelling process open and reproducible, I use R with markdown – this creates documents that contain the programming codes and the output they generate (a concept known as literate programming).
I hold a master degree in Zoology (1983), a master in Computer Sciences (1985) and a PhD in biology (1988), all from Ghent University. I teach environmental modelling at the University of Ghent, for the first-year master “Global Change Biology” and for the first-year master “Oceans and Lakes”. I am professor in marine ecosystem modelling at the Geosciences department at Utrecht University.
I have written in the order of 200 scientific publications, 20 software packages and 2 books. A list of my scientific output/achievements can be downloaded here.
Here you can download some courses that introduce you into the fine art of R-programming and modelling.
My job is not my only hobby! I play the cello (learnt this as an adult), and used to play the clarinet (as a child). In 2016 I started playing the viola. Bach is my favorite composer, Massive Attack my favorite modern band.
I enjoy my medium-large, wild and natural garden, and like to spend time on my mountain bike – for sports and because it takes me to some wonderful places.