Cátia Figueiredo was awarded with the Prize in Ecology

Cátia Figueiredo, a researcher from Centro Interdisciplinar de Investigação Marinha e Ambiental (CIIMAR) of Universidade do Porto. and a doctoral student at MARE, ULisboa, was awarded third place in the 2023 edition of Ph.D. Prize in Ecology. This prize was gaved by Sociedade Portuguesa de Ecologia (SPECO) and Fundação Amadeu Dias. The student investigated the bioaccumulation, elimination, and interaction of rare earth elements (REE) in various marine taxonomic groups, such as sponges, fish, bivalves, and algae.

"Receiving this prize was an incredibly experience. It was an honor to be recognized for my research on the effects of rare earth elements on aquatic organisms in a changing world. While I worked hard to develop this thesis, this recognition surprised me. Knowing that the jury valued the importance of my findings and their contribution to understanding current environmental challenges is extremely motivating. I am very grateful for this opportunity of sharing my results and my thesis. I hope  it can contribute to greater awareness of the complex interaction between rare earth elements, aquatic biodiversity, and climate change," explains the researcher.
She decided to start studying this topic because of her "passion for ecology and the desire to understand how rare earth elements can affect aquatic ecosystems." During her research, she realized a significant knowledge gap regarding the effects of these little-known elements on aquatic organisms, especially considering the context of the climate changes we are experiencing. She explains that, despite being called rare elements, they are widely dispersed in the Earth's crust. Despite their relative obscurity, rare earth elements have become crucial for technological shifts towards renewable, more efficient, and economically viable energy sources. Their characteristics have led to their wide use, from medicine to modern electronics, electric cars, and "green" energy industries. This widespread use contributes to the exponential increase in waste containing high concentrations of rare earth elements. The increasing production, shorter lifespan of electronic devices, and ineffective recycling policies result in the release of significant amounts of rare earth elements, which would otherwise exist in low concentrations, into the aquatic environment. All these factors inspired me to dedicate myself to this topic during my doctoral studies," says Cátia Figueiredo.



Let's begin by understanding what bioaccumulation is:
"Bioaccumulation is a process that occurs when certain substances, such as rare earth elements, accumulate in the tissues of organisms over time. Rare earth elements are naturally present in the environment in low concentrations, the reason they're called rare elements. However, they can be released into the water through various human activities, such as mining, improper disposal of electronic waste – like mobile phones, screens, and even electric car batteries – and medicine, as gadolinium is used as a contrast agent in MRI scans, for example, among other uses. It leads to an increase in the environmental availability of these elements, with uncertain consequences for the aquatic environment. From an environmental perspective, ecosystems are also dealing with climate change, another human-created issue that has the potential to change the patterns of chemical and contaminant bioaccumulation, including rare earth elements. Therefore, I studied how rare earth elements are accumulated by various aquatic organisms, such as sponges, fish, bivalves, and algae. I also studied the ecotoxicological effects they cause and how they might react in the near future under climate change," she explains.


Is there still a solution for the species?
"My doctoral thesis showed that aquatic species face significant challenges due to the bioaccumulation of rare earth elements, and the consequences of increased availability of these elements are particularly worse in a changing ocean context. While there's no single solution that applies to all species, there are strategies that can be explored to mitigate these negative effects. Continuous monitoring of the environmental availability of rare earth elements is important as it helps identify when levels are approaching values that could cause harmful effects and allows for the implementation of preventive measures. Reducing exposure to rare earth elements is also an important approach. Currently, there are no regulations regarding maximum levels of use and disposal of rare earth elements. Implementing strict regulations for the release of these elements into the environment to minimize contamination of aquatic ecosystems is urgent. Educating the public about rare earth elements, how they're extracted, the wide range of their uses, the consequences of their use and release into the environment, is extremely important. Promoting more responsible actions regarding the use of these elements and the recycling of end-of-life electronic products, solar panels, TV screens, electric car batteries, etc., is essential. Since these elements are relatively unknown to most people, education is fundamental. Lastly, the challenges faced by aquatic species are global. Collaboration between countries and international agreements can help address this emerging issue more effectively. In general, solutions involve a combination of regulations, research, conservation, and awareness efforts to minimize the impacts of rare earth elements on aquatic species."


What's the next step?
"The next step involves continuing to build foundational knowledge related to the work I developed during my doctoral studies. Before my study, for example, the effects of climate change on the presence of these crucial yet little-known contaminants in the environment had never been studied. Rare earth elements consist of 17 elements from the periodic table, making understanding their ecotoxicological behavior exceptionally complex. Therefore, focusing research on this group of elements is important. Research in this field can deepen our understanding of underlying ecotoxicological mechanisms as well as the long-term impacts on aquatic populations. Given the complexity of the challenges, interdisciplinary collaborations can provide valuable insights. Collaboration between ecologists, chemists, climatologists, and other experts can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the impacts of rare earth elements on aquatic species. Based on the baseline knowledge in my doctoral thesis, it might be possible to develop guidelines and policies that regulate the release of rare earth elements into the environment and protect aquatic species. It could require collaboration between scientists, policymakers, and relevant stakeholders, including the industry. In the coming years, I intend to remain dedicated to all these steps I've described, as my doctoral studies raised a series of questions I'm trying to answer. In that regard, my team and I have developed a project called EMINENT – Emerging Effects of Climate Change on Contaminants, of which I am a co-principal investigator. This project began in 2023, and through it, I hope to continue studying the ecotoxicological effects of rare earth elements in a scenario of extreme climatic events."


The Ph.D. Prize in Ecology rewards the best doctoral theses in any area of Ecology defended at Portuguese universities, regardless of the candidates' nationality. With this prize, SPECO values research in Ecology, highlights the excellence of Portuguese research groups, and their ability to attract international students.