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Staff Spotlight: Dr Lee de Mora - Marine Ecosystem Modeller

31 January 2023

Dr Lee de Mora sits within our Marine Systems Modelling group, which develops and applies state-of-the-art computational models to promote sustainable use of marine ecosystems.
Dr Lee de Mora joined Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) in 2011, after completing a PhD in High Energy Experimental Particle Physics.  

From particle physics to marine ecosystems modelling... 

He describes how he made the transition from particle physics to marine ecosystem modelling: 

“During my PhD, I worked on the ATLAS experiment on the Large Hadron Collider, and my thesis was on matter anti-matter asymmetry in b-physics. I spent half my PhD in Geneva at CERN, and the rest split between Lancaster University and Lund University in Sweden.” 

“Particle Physics and marine ecosystem modelling may seem pretty different, but in practice, both fields spend a lot of their time writing code and comparing observational data against some theoretical model.” 

The inspiration behind joining the environment sector... 

We then asked Lee what inspired him to join the charity sector, and if there was an impetus to work specifically on environmental issues. He recalls his childhood, where it all began: 

“When I was a kid, my dad’s work at Auckland University took us to a place called Goat Island Marine Reserve in New Zealand. Founded in 1975, it was one of the first marine protected areas in the world, but there was also a small marine research station there. We spent a lot of time there in the school holidays, and it was amazing. I was that kid that ran around while the postdocs, PhD and master's students played rugby in their downtime.”  

1-(1).pngPictured above: Goat Island Marine Reserve, New Zealand 

“... in our lifetimes, we may see significant improvements to the global marine biodiversity, that has got to be one of the most compelling reasons to be a marine biologist today.” 

“The marine reserve there was full of life; it was a spectacularly healthy ecosystem. While it is still a bit of a pipedream right now, the global biodiversity framework agreed at COP15 recently gives me hope that one day we could have marine protected areas like that covering 30% of the global ocean. In our lifetimes, we may see significant improvements to the global marine biodiversity; that has got to be one of the most compelling reasons to be a marine biologist today.” 

Current projects 

Lee tells us about some of the exciting papers and projects he is currently working on: 

“There’s a few things in the pipeline right now. I've recently submitted a manuscript to Earth System Dynamics, where we look at how anthropogenic carbon is allocated to atmosphere, land, and ocean reservoirs at specific warming levels. The key result is that the pathway to some specific warming level (for instance 2 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial period) really matters, and the difference between the sustainable future and enhanced fossil fuel production is equivalent to several years of global emissions.” 

“[…] this is the first time that anyone has made a forecast specifically centred on the marine ecosystem inside the Ascension Island Marine Protected Area.” 

“And, along with Yuri and Giovanni, we’ve recently submitted a paper on the Ascension Island Marine Protected Area. This MPA was founded in 2019, and this is the first time that anyone has made a forecast specifically centered on the marine ecosystem inside the MPA. Like many open ocean sites, the forecast is that the sea surface will warm, causing increased stratification, resulting in a decline in surface nutrients and productivity. Unfortunately, we see these changes in all forecasts – not just the business-as-usual scenarios.” 

1-(2).pngPictured above: Clarence Bay, on the Western Ascension Island coast

We asked Lee about some of the areas of work he enjoys most, and he describes being inspired by public outreach: 

“I really enjoy the rare opportunities where we get to interact with the wider public. The UK Earth System Model (UKESM) and TerraFIRMA projects have hosted stalls at science and outreach events, like the BlueDot Science and music festival, COP26 in Glasgow, or at the Royal Society science exhibition. At those events, the wider public comes up to you to talk about all aspects of climate change, the Earth System and environmental policy. These events are amazing opportunities to talk with thousands of people about our work, hear their thoughts, show off our model, and discuss climate change. It’s incredibly exhausting but also somehow really invigorating. You come home absolutely exhausted but also ready to work!” 

Using the Earth to create music... 

If you thought Lee wasn’t busy enough, through his spare time, he has combined his talents in modelling with his passion for music, creating music using model data from nature.  

“Outside of PML, I previously used some model data to generate music, originally published in 2019 and 2020. Those pieces have been remastered in high quality audio and published on Spotify, Amazon Music, and lots of other music streaming services. It’s exciting to be able to ask Alexa to play your own music!” 

Watch video: Dr de Mora’s ‘Earth System Music’ album, which uses modelled data to create music. The model data is linked to pitch. This means that higher temperatures, increased salinity and higher carbon absorption create higher notes! 


Living and working in Plymouth: ‘Britain’s Ocean City’   

We concluded our interview with Lee to ask his thoughts about living and working in Plymouth.    

“Outside work, the main thing I seem to do is spend time with our dog, Mikey. He’s a black and white coarse-haired Jack Russell, and he loves the sea, the beach and the coast at least as much as my wife and I do. In addition to the Earth System Music project, I play bass in the band Glass Curtain. We’re a cover band that mostly plays pubs, small local events and weddings – look out for us around Plymouth.” 

Lee-and-Mikey.jpgPictured above: Mikey the Jack Russell and Lee enjoying all of what living in Plymouth has to offer