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For several years, Maayke Stomp fought a battle that ultimately she could not win. Maayke was a talented scientist, dedicated lecturer and beloved colleague, who initiated ground-breaking research on the effects of light colour on the biodiversity of phytoplankton.

Maayke Stomp
Maayke Stomp (Photo: Dedmer van de Waal)

Colourful community

After finalizing her study at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 2001, Maayke started as PhD student in our research group Aquatic Microbiology of the new Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam. She was challenged by the idea to investigate how light colour affects phytoplankton competition.

In collaboration with professor Jef Huisman (UvA), professor Lucas Stal (Netherlands Institute of Ecology) and a team of master students she demonstrated that red and green phytoplankton species can coexist through a subtle form of niche differentiation, by sharing the light spectrum. Her findings, published in Nature 2004, offered a new solution for the classic Paradox of the Plankton, the vexing question of how a rich diversity of plankton species can coexist on only a handful of limiting resources.

Another major discovery that she made during her PhD study is that the stretching and bending vibrations of H2O molecules, which absorb light of specific wavelengths, create a series of distinct niches in the underwater light spectrum. These spectral niches match the absorption spectra of different photosynthetic organisms. In other words, vibrations of the water molecule have shaped the evolution of the photosynthetic pigments on our planet. This highly original work, published in The ISME Journal of 2007, was highlighted in the News & Views section of Nature.

Biodiversity patterns phytoplankton

After defending her PhD thesis, which was honoured with the judicium Cum Laude, Maayke moved to the Kellogg Biological Station of Michigan State University in the United States. Here she worked on large-scale biodiversity patterns of phytoplankton in lakes, together with Chris Klausmeier and Elena Litchman This led again to an impressive paper (Stomp et al. Ecology 2011), which was selected as Editors’ Choice in Science.

Maayke Stomp taking samples from the research vessel Pelagia on the North Sea
Maayke taking samples from the research vessel Pelagia on the North Sea (Photo: Amanda Burson)

In 2009, Maayke returned to the University of Amsterdam on a new position as Assistant Professor in our research group. She was awarded with a VENI grant from NWO to investigate how competition for nutrients and competition for light would interact. With her PhD students and postdocs, she developed mathematical models and ran lab experiments to predict how nutrients and light shape phytoplankton competition and diversity.

Furthermore, she showed how changing nitrogen and phosphorus loads in European rivers have led to phosphorus limitation in coastal waters of the North Sea, a topic that attracted considerable media attention and raised questions in the Dutch parliament on coastal nutrient management. Recently, a new PhD project started in collaboration with the VU, using satellite remote sensing to continue Maayke’s work on phytoplankton pigments and the underwater light spectrum.

Versatile scientist

Maayke was an extremely versatile scientist who combined mathematical models, laboratory experiments, data analysis and field work. She participated in a number of scientific cruises, and turned out to be an excellent organizer of field expeditions. As a PhD student, she had already organized the sampling of picocyanobacteria in the Baltic Sea and in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Later in her career, she joined her PhD student Amanda Burson in sampling phytoplankton across the North Sea, from the research vessel Pelagia of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. She also coordinated two-week yearly field excursions to Faro, Portugal for the BSc course Marine Biology, so students could study marine organisms in the Rio Formosa.

Maayke was a calm, thoughtful person, with a sincere interest in the people around her. She was an attentive listener, with her own typical sense of humour. During her time in our research department, she became a loyal friend to many of her colleagues. She passed away peacefully on 4 August and will be dearly missed.


Jef Huisman and Jolanda Verspagen

Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

Read more about the work of Maayke Stomp