Where are you from, and what is your role in Extreme 2002?
I am from the University of Delaware, Newark, DE. At UD, I work in close conjunction with Dr. K. Eric Wommack and Rebekah Helton on viral ecology research. During the Extreme 2002 cruise, our primary goal is to produce viral concentrates from hydrothermal vent waters. Essentially, we collect large volumes of water emanating from the sides of the vents. By using a series of tangential flow filters, we can separate and concentrate bacteria and viruses from 100+ liters of seawater into as little as 30 ml.
In addition to water sampling, we also will be extracting viruses from the porous chimney material. Back on land, these viral concentrates and extracts will be subjected to a host of analyses in order to characterize the viral communities of the vents. Our secondary goal is to isolate novel phage-host systems by screening our newly made viral concentrates against a representative library of putative bacterial hosts. If time permits, we would also like to initiate a study of lysogeny (the stable incorporation of viral DNA into the bacterial host chromosome) in bacteria obtained from the vents.
What are the questions you're trying to answer and why? Why is this research important? What are the benefits?
I am attempting to increase our knowledge about viruses as part of the ecological community. To me, the Big Question is: what role(s) do viruses fulfill out there in the World? This is a broad question that may never be fully answered, but still one can hope for some insights by examining the situation on a smaller scale. The Extreme 2002 cruise provides an excellent opportunity for just such an examination. More specific questions pertaining to the cruise are: (1) how important is viral infection in altering bacterial community structure (i.e., through mortality)? (2) How do viral communities from hydrothermal vents compare (morphologically and genetically) with viral communities from other marine environments, or from terrestrial environments?
Based on data that's been coming in over the last 20 years or so, it appears that viruses are active members of the microbial community, and to this extent, influence bacterial population dynamics (growth, diversity) in marine ecosystems. Since the overall health and productivity of an ecosystem depends largely upon microbial activity (for example, in the conversion of dead biomass to new raw materials), factors that affect the microbial community (viruses) can also exert their effects on the ecosystem at higher trophic levels. Increasing our knowledge of viruses in an environmental context is an important step in advancing our understanding of microbial ecology.
What’s your background and what lured you into marine science/education?
The path I followed to the sea was neither straight nor narrow. I received my B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Delaware. During those halcyon days, I took advantage of the undergraduate research program to explore avenues other than biochemistry. I spent three summers as a research assistant developing new breeds of corn, and one summer aiding a large project in insect ecology. I also paid bills by moonlighting as a teaching assistant (TA) in the Biology Department, which fueled my growing interest in science education. After completing my bachelor's degree, I paid off loans by painting murals in private homes for a year. Then I went on to graduate study in soil microbiology, quite unexpectedly, back at the University of Delaware.
My current objective is to continue my education and build my teaching
portfolio so that I can advance to a career as a collegiate science educator.
Hopefully, this explains the science education interest, but what about
the marine component? Enter Dr. Eric Wommack: a brash, new faculty member
at UD who had spent his Ph.D. studying marine viral ecology. He provided
inestimable help by sharing his knowledge of virus interactions in marine
ecosystems, much of which has been applicable to my research on soil ecosystems.
As a result of our continued interaction, and Eric's infectious enthusiasm,
I found my interest in viral ecology spilling over into aquatic environments.
What else would a soil scientist from Delaware be doing on a ship in the
middle of the Pacific?