Scripps Student Spotlight: Anya Štajner

PhD student researches zooplankton activity in the California Current Ecosystem

Anya Štajner is a PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, beginning her second year in the biological oceanography program. Štajner was raised in San Jose, Calif., and earned her bachelor’s degree in marine and coastal sciences from the University of California Davis. She studies zooplankton ecology and works in the lab of Scripps zooplankton ecologist Moira Décima.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Anya Štajner: I was drawn to Scripps for all of the incredible opportunities that I saw for myself there: the opportunity to study at an institution that fosters a collaborative community of researchers, the opportunity to work with a brilliant principal investigator (PI), and the opportunity to access state-of-the-art facilities and an unparalleled fleet of research vessels. During the open house and interview process, it became clear to me that Scripps was filled with promise and would be a wonderful place for me to grow as a scientist. And an added bonus? We’re only a few steps away from the ocean here—every oceanographer’s dream!


Štajner in front of the CTD (an instrument with sensors that measure conductivity, temperature, and depth) aboard R/V Revelle, preparing to participate in a dilution experiment. She and the team use water samples from the CTD with different concentrations of phytoplankton and microzooplankton to see how these communities change over time under different conditions.

en: What are you researching at Scripps?

AŠ: Broadly, I study zooplankton ecology. Zooplankton are animals that live in the open ocean that can’t swim against horizontal currents. The word zooplankton has Greek roots meaning “animal” and “drifter,” which pretty perfectly describe these creatures. You may know of some common zooplankton like krill and jellyfish, but that’s not all that’s out there. There are so many incredibly beautiful and bizarre species of zooplankton that play critical roles in ocean food webs!

For example, some of my research focuses on pteropods and zooea. Pteropods are pelagic (open ocean) sea snails, and zooea are baby crabs. Due to the chemical structure of their shells, both are vulnerable to ocean acidification and hypoxia (OAH). My research aims to assess their vulnerability to OAH, right here in the California Current Ecosystem (CCE). I also am working on a project to better understand zooplankton trophic structure and productivity in the CCE. Zooplankton play an important role in transferring energy through the food web to larger ocean animals, so it’s incredibly important to understand these dynamics in a changing ocean. I’ve also had the opportunity to help with a lot of other ongoing projects in the Décima Lab that look at larger zooplankton like salps and pyrosomes. I’ve really enjoyed broadening my horizons during my first year of the program. I’m still somewhat of a newbie here at Scripps, so I am using this time to explore all that excites me within the realm of zooplankton ecology!


en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

AŠ: When it comes to the ocean, I think I was born curious. My Oma will tell you stories of having to drag me out of the ocean when I was a kid, and my dad will recount all the times that I had my face pressed to the glass at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In a way, I think it was inevitable that I ended up studying biological oceanography. Getting to zooplankton ecology specifically though, is another story. That I can chalk up to lab and field experience. I urge anyone who is interested in marine science to get as much diverse experience as possible. If you had asked me what I wanted to do with my degree in 2016, I would’ve told you bottlenose dolphin ecology, hands-down. Had I only taken opportunities studying bottlenose dolphins, I might’ve never gotten the chance to fall in love with zooplankton! 

Before starting my PhD at Scripps, I managed to get experience in a wide variety of scientific sub-fields, which ultimately paved my way here. I worked on research looking at the evolutionary constraints on morphological evolution of fish, the controlling factors of juvenile Velella velella diets, the effects of climate change and disease on successful salmon outmigration, and the increasing population of bottlenose dolphins in the Ligurian Basin along with accompanying conservation efforts. Out of all of this (plus loads of sci-comm experience), I found that I was most drawn to zooplankton ecology! Studying zooplankton ecology allows me to look at the big picture in marine systems and understand how these critical-trophic links can affect all sorts of oceanic phenomena, from food webs to carbon export. 


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

AŠ: This is hard to answer because every day is so different as a PhD student in biological oceanography—just how I like it. The most consistent part of my daily routine is a morning walk with my dog. But once I get to Scripps, anything goes! Some days I work at the microscope for hours, listening to podcasts and sorting zooplankton. Other days, I launch a small boat off the pier and trek out to the Scripps Canyon to collect plankton. I once even spent 35 days out at sea with the CCE-Long Term Ecological Research program conducting research off the coast. There’s also a fair amount of coding, zooscanning, preparing samples for isotopic analysis, reading papers, and bouncing ideas around with my peers on the day-to-day.

Anya on boat
Štajner aboard the small boat SIO-7, collecting live zooplankton from La Jolla Canyon to teach undergraduate students about zooplankton diversity.

On top of my duties as a PhD student, I also am a coordinator for SCOPE: Scripps Community Outreach for Public Education. I help bring the research from Scripps scientists out to the public because community connection is such an integral part of effective science. It’s great to have so much variety in my everyday life because I can switch between different types of tasks whenever I need a refresh. 


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?

AŠ: This may be cheesy, but I just love the ocean! Whether it be spending time at sea or at the microscope, I love getting to see all the biodiversity that the ocean has to offer. It’s always so exciting to me when I get to see ocean animals, both big and small, and learn about their ecology.


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

AŠ: To name just a few, I have to start with my mentors from my time as an undergraduate. Right away, Helen Killeen at UC Davis’s Bodega Marine Lab comes to mind when I think of key scientific role models or mentors. I am thankful for both her scientific zeal and the kindness that she showed me. Helen, as well as Ashley Smart, Christopher Martinez, Jennifer Hodge, Steven Morgan, Alan Hastings, Brain Gaylord, and Tessa Hill have all played key roles in shaping who I am as a scientist and helping me get to this point. Since arriving at Scripps, my PI Moira Décima has been a wonderful mentor, graciously sharing her expertise, enthusiasm, and time with me. Additionally, I want to thank the rest of the Décima lab, along with any other Scripps student who has taken time out of their day to offer me guidance over coffee at Pinpoint, in the lab, or on a Zoom call—you know who you are!


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

AŠ: To be completely candid, being a PhD student can be humbling at times. When I first showed up at Scripps, I had this idea in my mind that I was already supposed to know everything. Sometimes, my peers would be able to answer questions quicker than I could, or identify species that I had never encountered before. It all made me nervous that I wouldn’t be able to perform at the level I needed to be a successful scientist here. Eventually, I realized that I was completely wrong in that way of thinking. I even found that I wasn’t the only first-year student feeling that way. Each and every person in this program comes with a unique perspective and skill set—including myself! It wouldn’t make sense if we all came to Scripps already knowing everything. At the end of the day, Scripps is a place to continue our learning and growth as scientists. Now, I remind myself that being a good scientist doesn’t just mean being the first to know the answer. Being a good scientist is about continuously learning from those around you, paying attention, making connections, strengthening your critical thinking skills, and staying curious. 


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

AŠ: I would love to be a professor in the future, but I could also see myself working at another type of institution that values research, teaching, and public service. All I know is that I want to help people, plankton, and the planet some way or another!


You can find Štajner on Instagram @PlanktonPrincess and on Twitter @ScienceStajner. Additionally, she runs a collective blog for women in STEM that you can visit here, and created a marine pop-science podcast, Wet, that you can listen to on Spotify or on Apple Music (find it by searching “Wet Anya Štajner”).

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.