January 20 Interview
Anna-Louise Reysenbach, Assistant Professor
Conducted by Scientists Susan Humphris and Dan Fornari from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Anna-Louise Reysenbach LOVES science. When you talk with her about her research, she is like a kid - showing
boundless enthusiasm and curiosity about solving science problems, especially microbiological ones. Anna-Louise
grew up in South Africa, near Johannesburg, where her parents and brother and sister still live. Now 38 years
old, she is an Assistant Professor at Portland State University. She studies all types of "extreme" microorganisms;
ones that live in really inhospitable places, like geysers in Yellowstone National Park and deep-sea hydrothermal
What did you want to be when you grew up? Were you always interested in science?
I was always interested in science as a child. My parents encouraged me a great deal to look at nature
and we spent many holidays camping and fishing off the coast, and sailing. I think all the time I spent on
the ocean as a child made me want to get involved in a profession where I could always be around water. I
liked school a lot and always enjoyed science, but I was always attracted to arts and crafts, too.
How did you begin your professional career in science? What schools did you attend and how did you end
up here in the U.S. doing research and using Alvin?
I attended college at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and majored in botany and microbiology.
The courses I took in college made me realize that I really wanted to be a scientist. I took lots of courses
in marine and aquatic sciences and also studied algae. I went right into graduate school after finishing
my Bachelor's degree. I attended the University of Cape Town and did my Ph.D. research on microbes used in
various industrial processes. Companies use microbes all the time to make things; one common example is the
use of yeast in making of beer. The research work I did involved microbes that were used in making acetone and
butanol (two chemicals used in industrial processes) from sugar cane.
In college, I also learned to scuba dive and realized that I wanted to have a career where I could combine my
love for scientific research and my love for the ocean and sports. I got my Ph.D. in 1987 and decided that
I wanted to work on "extremophiles" - microorganisms that live in extreme types of environments, such as at very
high pressures or high temperature. At that time, considerable work was being done in the U.S., so in 1988 I applied
for and got a postdoctoral position with Dr. Jody Deming at the University of Washington in Seattle. There
I gained a lot of experience in isolating hypothermophile microorganisms (microorganisms that live in hot environments
at temperatures greater than 80° C) from deep-sea hydrothermal vents. I also participated in my first research
cruise in 1988 to the Juan de Fuca Ridge where I made my first dive in Alvin.
After your postdoc. at the University of Washington, how did you get to your current position as an Assistant
Professor at Portland State University and involved in the research you are currently doing?
I realized in 1990 that one of the keys to looking at extreme microorganisms would be to be able to identify
them genetically. At that time, there was a large amount of research in medical science related to using molecular
tools to fingerprint and identify organisms, so it seemed logical to me that I should gain that experience. Like
many scientists, we have to learn new techniques, and we often get new scientific insights from using new techniques.
Prof. Norman Pace at Indiana University was already using molecular tools in his studies of microorganisms, so
I applied for a research position to work with him. That is when I first got involved in looking at microoganisms
that inhabit the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. This was fantastic because it helped
me combine my love for nature and outdoor activities with my research. I spent five great years working and learning
new techniques at Indiana University, and then went to Rutgers University for three years where there is a research
group also involved in deep-sea vent biology and genetics. Last year, I was fortunate to get a position teaching
and doing research in the Department of Environmental Biology at Portland State University. I love Portland
and my new job and have realized my dream of living somewhere where I can do exciting research, work with students,
and have lots of fun on the ocean as well.
What do you most like about your job? What don't you like?
I am very happy in my job, particularly the combination of doing research that involves field work, and
teaching. The one thing I wish I had more of is time to think about my science and try to synthesize the results. I
seem to always be so busy that I rarely sit down and contemplate about science.
So what are your ocean hobbies?What do you do to relax when you're not looking for weird microorganisms?
I love being outdoors. I have a dog, Saskia, and we spend lots of time out hiking in the beautiful Oregon mountains.
I also love sailboarding and often go to the Hood River, which is a sailboarding mecca for many people all over
the Northwest, and the world actually. I also like pottery and have my own wheel and kiln. This is a hobby
that I have just started in the past year, and I'm still learning all about it. It is great fun and very relaxing
What excites you about the science you are doing, and what are the key questions that you are trying to answer
with your research?
So little is known about microbes in high-temperature environments - what they are doing, how they get their
energy and carbon sources, what role they play in the ecosystems they exist in, and how they affect geochemical
processes. That's a life's work! My continuing work at deep-sea vents and the hot springs at Yellowstone
provide ideal environments to test hypotheses about "extreme" microorganisms. While our work at the
deep-sea vents requires Alvin to go to the bottom of the ocean, our work in Yellowstone has the advantage
of being able to just hike out to the hot springs and take samples. One of my ultimate goals is to have cultures
of these microorganisms growing in my lab, so that I can begin to run experiments to see how microbes affect minerals. This
is a whole new field of research, but I have a suspicion that there is much more interaction between rocks and
microorganisms than we currently suspect.