EMBLetc. Summer 2020

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Connecting for a sustainable future EMBL scientist Katja Ovchinnikova reflects on her participation in the Homeward Bound leadership programme



he women were making their way through the snow when suddenly the whole group came to halt. In Antarctica, there are many obstacles to consider when travelling by land. The trails are narrow and few, and the unpredictable weather makes it hard to plan ahead. In this case, however, the path was obstructed by nothing more than a tired penguin. Antarctica is full of socalled penguin highways, which humans are not allowed to walk on. Penguins, on the other hand, are free to use human trails – or even lie down on them to get some rest. Instead of disturbing the bird, the group decided to wait for it to get up and continue its journey. For EMBL computer scientist Katja Ovchinnikova, this was an important experience – a glimpse of how humans have to limit their intrusion into nature if they want to coexist with it. This was one of the impressions she took home from a three-week expedition to Antarctica – the highlight of a year-long mentoring programme to prepare women for leadership roles in fields related to science, the environment, and sustainability.

Codes and coral

Katja works as a computer scientist specialising in artificial intelligence. At 28

EMBLetc. SUMMER 2020

EMBL Heidelberg, she is a postdoc in the Alexandrov group. Here, she focuses on the computational analysis of data from mass spectrometry – a technology used to analyse the structures of molecules. During her academic career, Katja’s work has involved language processing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and computational biology. She has always been driven by a desire to contribute to causes she believes in, which is why she also applies her skills to environmental science. Her current projects include developing software to automatically detect scallops in images of the seabed, in collaboration with the University of St Andrews in the UK, and a project on coral health in collaboration with the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. When ocean temperatures rise, as a result of climate change, for example, corals expel the algae that live inside their tissues. This is known as coral bleaching. Corals live with these algae in a close relationship, known as symbiosis, in which both species benefit. Without the algae, corals lose their colour and begin to starve, although it is possible for them to recover. “The idea of our initiative is to study the global health situation of coral reefs,” says Katja. “We do this using imagery