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 to look
at nature. We spent many holidays camping, fishing, and sailing off the coast.
All that time I spent on the ocean as a child made me want to get involved in
a profession where I could be around water. I liked school a lot and always enjoyed
science. I was also attracted to arts and crafts.
How did you begin your professional career in science? What schools did you attend
and how did you end up here in the US doing research and using Alvin
I attended college at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa where I
majored in botany and microbiology. The courses I took in college made me realize
that I really wanted to be a scientist. I took a lot of courses in marine and
aquatic sciences and studied algae. I went right into graduate school after finishing
my bachelors degree. I attended the University of Cape Town and did my
Ph.D. research on the 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 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 learned to scuba dive and realized that I wanted to have a career
where I could combine my love for scientific research with my love for the ocean
and sports. I got my Ph.D. in 1987 and decided that I wanted to work on extremophiles.
These are 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 US, so in 1988 I got a post-doctoral position with Dr. Jody
Deming at the University of Washington in Seattle. There I gained experience
isolating hypothermophile microorganisms (microorganisms that live at temperatures
greater than 80°C) from deep-sea hydrothermal vents. I participated in
my first research cruise in 1988 to the Juan de Fuca Ridge where I made my first
dive in Alvin
How did you get your current position at Portland State University? How did you
become involved in your current research?
I realized in 1990 that one of the keys to looking at extreme microorganisms
is identifying them genetically. At that time, medical researchers were using
molecular tools to fingerprint and identify organisms. It seemed logical that
I should gain that experience. Like many scientists, we often get new scientific
insights by using new techniques. Professor Norman Pace at Indiana University
was already using molecular tools in his studies of microorganism, so I applied
for a research position to work with him. That is when I started looking at microorganisms
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. Then I went to Rutgers University for three
years where there is another research group studying 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 I love my new job. I have realized my dream of living somewhere
where I can do exciting research, work with students, and have lots of fun on
What do you most like about your job? What dont you like?
I am very happy in my job; particularly the combination of doing research that
involves fieldwork, and teaching. I do wish I had more 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. My dog Saskia and I spend a lot of time 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. I also like pottery and have my own wheel and kiln. I just started
this hobby during 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? What are the key questions
that you are trying to answer?
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. Thats
a lifes 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.