Thomas Hanson, an assistant professor of marine biology-biochemistry at the University of Delaware, has received a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Deemed one of NSF’s highest honors for new faculty, the award recognizes and supports the early career development activities of “those faculty members who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.”
The five-year $849,460 award will support Hanson’s research on microbial physiology in which he seeks to understand how microorganisms are able to survive and compete in the environment. His award was funded through the Metabolic Biochemistry Program of the Molecular and Cellular Biology Cluster of NSF.
Hanson considers himself very fortunate to receive the award. “I have wanted to be a microbiologist for as long as I can remember — even before high school, I was doing science fair projects on microbes,” he says. “It’s just amazing to get an award that gives me the funding to do a project that is sort of the lifeblood of my lab.”
Hanson has been a member of the faculty of the UD College of Marine Studies since 2003. His laboratory is located in the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI) in Newark, a facility that encourages interdisciplinary interactions among researchers from different academic units within the university.
“DBI has been a fantastic place for me to get started as a young faculty member,” says Hanson. “The interactions and facilities available have been crucial for my development.”
But why would anybody want to study microbes — those tiny bugs that many people associate with disease? According to Hanson, he wants the public to learn about the “good side” of these organisms.
“I want people to realize that microbiology is much more than flesh-eating bacteria or other harmful microbes,” says Hanson, who calls himself a microbial zealot. “Microbes constitute the majority of the biomass present on Earth, and human beings and other living organisms are entirely dependent on them to maintain conditions favorable for life.”
Besides, his career choice is a natural: his father was a professor of microbiology, now professor emeritus, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Hanson will use the award to identify and characterize the genes and proteins in the green sulfur bacterium Chlorobium tepidum that are responsible for transforming sulfur into a form that can be absorbed by other living organisms.
“The work is challenging because Chlorobium tepidum is a thermophilic anaerobe,” says Hanson. “It cannot survive in air and requires temperatures of approximately 120° Fahrenheit to grow. In nature, green sulfur bacteria and other bacteria consume sulfur compounds that are produced by the decay of organic matter or emitted from volcanoes and hydrothermal vents.”
Sulfur, like other essential nutrients and elements, exists in many chemical forms in the environment and in many places. Transfer of sulfur from one form or place to another by organisms and reactions in the environment results in a cycle, a biogeochemical cycle. It’s known that Chlorobium tepidum transforms sulfur compounds like sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs and is toxic, to odorless sulfate by a chemical process called oxidation. Hanson’s project will help determine how Chlorobium tepidum and other anaerobic bacteria carry out sulfur oxidation reactions — an important and relatively poorly understood part of the global sulfur cycle.
A unique feature of Hanson’s project involves an education component, which will introduce microbiology to students in 11th grade. In cooperation with K–12 educators in the Delaware Department of Education’s John W. Collette Education Resource Center, Hanson will design a curriculum module that includes various hands-on experiments. The module will illustrate and teach basic principles of ecology as well as introduce students to the role of microbes in the environment.
Participating classrooms will construct Winogradsky columns. These columns are enclosed self-sustaining microcosms — literally “small worlds” — that give students the ability to grow multiple types of microbes under various conditions. An interactive Web site, which will be developed with the assistance of the Marine Public Education Office within the College of Marine Studies, will allow the students and Hanson to communicate during the course of the experiments.
Perhaps the most innovative portion of the education component is that the microbes cultured in the classrooms will be integrated into Hanson’s research. The Winogradsky columns will be collected from the classrooms and transferred to Hanson’s laboratory, where the green sulfur bacteria and others will be isolated. These bacteria will be examined microscopically and characterized by traditional and molecular microbial methods. These results will be posted to the Web site so the students can follow the progress of the ongoing research.
“The education component gives me an opportunity to give back to the community on a short-term basis,” says Hanson. “I want to be involved in making sure that the United States doesn’t fall behind in science education. And one way to do that is to get students in earlier and acquaint them with the knowledge that you can have a career in research and that you can do some really interesting things with it.”
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Hanson is currently involved in another NSF-funded project at UD to study the microbiology of trace metal cycling in salt marshes with Thomas Church, professor of oceanography and chemistry in the College of Marine Studies.
Hanson earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1992 and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of California at Davis in 1998. Before coming to the University of Delaware, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Ohio State University in Columbus, where he developed his current research interests and participated in a $2.1 million research project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
His other academic honors include the Jastro-Shields Graduate Research Scholarship at the University of California, the Hilldale Undergraduate Research Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, and membership in Alpha Zeta, the national agriculture honor fraternity, and Phi Eta Sigma, a freshman honor society. He also is a member of the American Society for Microbiology and the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography.