A phycologist is a scientist who studies algae and cyanobacteria. He or she conducts field and laboratory research to investigate the genetic properties of algae, the impact of environmental changes, and the roles that algae play in an ecosystem. As with professionals in most research positions, phycologists follow ethical, scientific standards in their work and create detailed reports based on their findings. Some phycologists conduct independent research at private laboratories and universities, while others apply their knowledge of algae in industry to develop new foods and commercial products.
A research phycologist usually spends a considerable amount of time at lakes, rivers and oceans. He or she might want to observe a population of algae and keep track of changes in coloration, quantity, and movement over time. Scientists monitor interactions between algae and other organisms, and record data about temperature, pollution levels, and overall water quality. Samples of algae are carefully collected and brought back to a laboratory for analysis.
Phycologists conduct laboratory experiments on algae and unicellular cyanobacteria for many reasons. Some studies are designed to determine under which conditions algae can best reproduce, photosynthesize, and thrive. Researchers also study algae at the molecular level to investigate genetic properties and uncover facts about the important evolutionary history of these ancient organisms. All research is carefully conducted and recorded in papers and journals to ensure that studies provide meaningful, reliable information for other phycologists to use.
A phycologist who is more interested in applied science than general research may decide to pursue a career at an alternative energy corporation, wastewater treatment facility, or agribusiness. Algae has been found to be a very versatile renewable energy source, and many companies specialize in creating biofuels from the organism. In addition, algae is used to filter wastewater naturally, reducing the need for potentially hazardous chemical treatments. A phycologist at such a facility usually acts as a research and development supervisor to determine the most efficient ways to grow, collect, and use commercial algae.
A person who is interested in pursuing a phycologist career usually needs to obtain at least a master's degree. A small number of graduate schools offer degree programs designed specifically for future phycologists, though most students major in more general subjects like biology or botany. After graduation, a new scientist typically obtains a fellowship or research assistant position to gain practical, supervised experience in the field. By producing meaningful, accurate findings, a successful phycologist is granted the freedom to design and conduct independent projects.