Careers in Marine Sciences: Out to Sea Searching for Microbes


I work as a research technician with Edward DeLong at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing, California. Our lab uses molecular techniques to study groups of microorganisms (both archaea and bacteria) in the marine environment that to date have not been cultivated. We know they're there, because we can detect their rRNA genes in the environment. But because no cultivated representatives exist, not much is known about these groups of microorganisms. In particular, we know little about their metabolic capacity or how they are involved in cycling nutrients.

Currently, we are applying techniques similar to those employed in the Human Genome Project to recover large fragments of DNA from prokaryotes in the water column. The genes we recover will help us learn how these microbes cycle nutrients and affect nutrient availability.

My research requires experience in microbiology, molecular biology, genomics, and the marine environment. It also involves field work. Not everyone enjoys the ocean, and I do get seasick. But I have developed a ritual that keeps me happy on days I go out to sea when the weather isn't pleasant. I have to be able to take samples even when conditions aren't optimal.

I got my B.Sc. degree from James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I didn't initially enter JMU as a biology major; I switched after taking botany. I had always wanted to do research, primarily with athlete performance, but the health sciences major did not hold my interest. After botany, I took a microbiology and genetics course and was completely hooked. I started undergraduate research in microbiology when molecular techniques were first being applied directly to environmental samples and many new discoveries were being made. Although I did not take this approach in my undergraduate research, in Ivor Knight's lab at JMU, I did use molecular techniques to study urease genes in bacteria that had been isolated from the spiral valve of carcharind sharks.

This work led to my participation in several research cruises. Before entering graduate school, I had been to the Bahamas aboard the RV Columbus Isilen and participated in a dive in the deep-sea submersible Alvin aboard the RV Atlantis II. On these cruises, I developed an appreciation for what it means to do research at sea, including bringing all the laboratory equipment one could possibly need; being able to fix things without having the proper parts; figuring out the logistics of planning; picking sampling sites; collecting and processing samples; and just generally being flexible. Scientists work really hard during these periods and sleep very little. They have only a short period of time to get their experiments done, and ship time is expensive.

During this same period, I was also interning at the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. in Elkton, Virginia. But academic research proved much more exciting for me than industrial research. As an academic, I visited exotic places, made new discoveries, and openly exchanged that information with other scientists--activities and experiences that don't occur as often in industry.

Even so, working in the marine environment wasn't my first priority when I applied for graduate school. But I did know that I wanted to use molecular techniques to study microbes and to work with symbiotic systems (specifically interactions between microbes and invertebrate hosts). And it so happened that the graduate school offer from DeLong at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)--to study prokaryotic diversity in marine sponges--combined all three interests. Moreover, marine symbioses are largely unexplored compared to many terrestrial systems, and the prospect of discovering something new was quite appealing to me. So, I went to UCSB, receiving my doctoral degree in 1998. After that, I did a postdoc at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, in David Epel's lab, where I studied bacterial symbionts that are integrated into the reproductive systems of squid.

Many of my research experiences have not been directly related to my own thesis, but were opportunities that presented themselves along the way, and I was able to take advantage of them. Similarly, during my graduate career, I participated in several cruises, including two field seasons at Palmer Station, Antarctica. The research I participated in on cruises, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, gave me hands-on experience with the tools scientists use to collect and study bacterioplankton, as well as a direct appreciation for what environmental parameters (e.g., salinity, temperature, and chlorophyll concentration) are important considerations. These experiences aided me during my latest career transition--to MBARI.

Since moving to MBARI in 2000, I've gotten involved in the field of environmental genomics. The scope of my interests has broadened, along with my general knowledge, since my Ph.D. work on microbes that inhabit invertebrates. And now that I study free-living bacterioplankton, I'm realizing that the physical and chemical characteristics of the water column play a much larger role in structuring microbial populations.

I still use many of the same molecular tools (in situ hybridization and PCR-based techniques, for example) to determine the distribution of specific groups of microbes in the water column, and those same techniques can be applied to look for the distribution of genes. It's also important to use a multidisiplininary approach and be willing to learn new fields and techniques when studying the ocean environment. The more tools that you have at your fingertips or through collaborations, the more information you can gain.

Why did I really choose to study marine microbes? It's the excitement of the possibility that each day could bring a new discovery, and it's good balance for me. I spend time at the lab bench, but I also escape to the sea.

If you are interested in what goes on during research cruises, then check out and Both sites are currently posting daily logs written by scientists aboard.

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