Today, dear readers, I’m extremely proud to introduce Melissa Garren for my second Conversation with a Scientist article.
Melissa is a marine biologist specializing in coral reef and microbial ecology, currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in Roman Stocker’s research group at MIT. I had the pleasure of meeting Melissa while I was still at MIT, and I quickly fell under the spell of her bubbly, wonderfully warm personality. (I’m also very much in awe of her strength and flexibility as a dedicated yoga practitioner.)
[Side note: Melissa was an invited speaker at the TEDx Monterey event in April 2012. You can watch her talk here.]
As Anne and Berry talked about in May, one of the great things about working in science is all the amazing individuals you get to meet and befriend along the way. It’s an honour to have Melissa visit my website and talk to you about her pursuit and passion for science.
My friend, you have the floor.
…ON WHY WE OWE A HUGE DEBT OF THANKS TO WHAT WE CAN’T SEE IN THE OCEAN:
Marine microbes make half the oxygen we breathe. Ocean microbes are really, really, really important even though we can’t see them with our naked eyes, many people don’t know they exist and we rarely think about them. That’s the one thing that I think is most relevant to everyone’s life even if they’ve never been in the ocean before, because we all need to breathe, and people generally find it shocking. Most people don’t believe me. To be fair, when we were in school, this wasn’t known yet. And now I wish the whole world knew it!
…ON WHY WE NEED TO KNOW MORE ABOUT WHAT WE CAN’T SEE:
In general, trying to figure out how all of these teeny tiny microbes we can’t really see support big scale health of the globe and all the ecosystems in it is the line of questioning that I think much of my field is trying to move forward on.
At the end of the day, it’s a microbial world that we live in. Even in our own bodies, we have more microbes in us than we have human cells, it just happens that the human cells are a lot bigger and thus we look human rather than microbial. All organisms are dependent on ‘probiotics’ – healthy microbes that support our lifestyles, help us digest our food and all sorts of other important things, and that’s true everywhere. There’s not a surface you’re going to find anywhere in the globe that doesn’t have microbes I don’t think. They perform a lot of really important functions.
For example, in soils they cycle nutrients and help plants grow. And soils are probably one of the better understood environments for how microbes support soil health and all of the plants that grow in it. But when it comes to the oceans, it’s a lot harder to package up a piece of ocean and figure out how the microbial processes in it support, say, large-scale fisheries or whales or the like.
But we do know that microbes really control what we call the biogeochemical state of the ocean – microbes control the color of the ocean, the taste of the ocean, the smell of the ocean, and the chemical makeup of the ocean. And if you have a really cloudy, egg-smelling, stinky ocean, you’re probably not going to have really happy dolphins or whales or productive tuna fisheries. But in clearer waters or waters that are rich in the right nutrients that help phytoplankton grow or krill grow, which feed these fisheries, then you have a chemical state that supports the ocean ecosystems that we would like to see stay intact because we depend on them for food and jobs and many other services.
Understanding the mechanisms of how all these tiny things we can’t see work together to really support the stage on which all the big things we do see perform and live is, I think, one of the biggest questions. And there are lots of things we do that disturb the microbes that we’re just beginning to understand. We didn’t think just a couple of decades ago that we could disturb the microbes. But it turns out we can set their relationships and their cycles out of balance that trickle out into these big scale pictures of what happens to fisheries and such. So trying to figure out how all those relationships work, who the critical partners are and what they’re all doing, and how that all connects into the big picture is where a lot of research needs to be done.
…ON HOW FOLLOWING YOUR INTERESTS CAN LEAD TO WORKING ON CORAL REEFS:
I grew up on the water – I started on the Chesapeake Bay and then finished high school in California on the Monterey Bay. My parents both scuba dived actually. My dad hurt his ears and my mom wanted a dive buddy so I got certified and she and I dove together a bit. So I’ve always been in the water and enjoyed the water. And I grew up on a farm in Maryland mostly so there was a lot of exploring the woods and the streams and the river. And then finally I figured out that people called “biologists” actually get paid to do those sorts of things sometimes.
I was also drawn to this duality of being able to spend some time outside observing and exploring nature in its natural history sense and combining that with the cutting edge technology. That interface is something that I get really excited about: the ways that cutting edge technology can help us understand the natural world around us, and hopefully help protect it. Not that high tech solutions are always the answer, but sometimes the fancy technology can help us figure out what’s going wrong and point us towards a low tech solution.
…ON THE IMPORTANCE OF MENTORSHIP IN THE PURSUIT OF SCIENCE:
There was a lot of external encouragement – my family is very science heavy so I’ve been exposed to science all my life. I had an uncle who introduced me to a woman who was a scientist at Stanford and I ended up spending two summers working with her [while I was in high school], and that’s where I first learned microbiology and molecular biology skills. She was an incredible mentor. And my uncle and I used to go out for dinner, just the two of us, every couple of months or so when I was in high school to talk science. He was really into science so he would tell me all the fun things he was learning in the biotech world and he had a gift for explaining it in a way I could understand. I had a lot of support to explore those options.
Looking back on it now, I realize how rare the amazing female mentor in science is, or can be, and I managed to luck out and have a number of them early on. Nancy Knowlton, who I worked with in Panama, was a really wonderful and nurturing science mentor. She took me to Japan with her to the international coral reef conference, and let me present a poster at my first international meeting the year after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree. It was an incredible experience in the whole process of science, from designing the experiments and the questions, through the writing and the presenting.
My time at Stanford was definitely formative because, in my mind, I thought science as a job would be very boring: locked in the lab, never getting to be outside. And the type of science I was doing [at Stanford] was purely lab-based, there was no field component. But the way that people arranged their schedule, they made exercise and outside time and family time a priority, and I got to see a better picture of what that work-life balance can look like. And that was definitely important. It changed my assumptions about how science and a lab functions. And then I ultimately found a way to combine that type of lab science that I really enjoyed with a field component as well.
[Science] is not one of those jobs that gets glorified on TV all that often, or is all that accessible if someone is not encouraging you to explore it, but it encompasses a huge variety of amazing fields with exciting career opportunities.
…ON THE SURPRISING BENEFITS OF A CAREER IN SCIENCE:
Some of the best and most surprising parts are the amazing diversity and creativity of the people that I’ve met through science, sometimes other people in science and sometimes people working in completely different fields. I’ve had a lot of amazing interactions with people who live at the places where we go to do field work. I’ve met people in all different types of careers and with all different types of interests, many of whom are unified by a passion for the ocean, where they live or otherwise – that has been really inspiring.
The amount of travel that I’ve gotten to do has certainly surprised me – I’ve definitely found myself in places on the planet I never thought I would have the opportunity to see or be and that has been wonderful and has also in part contributed to getting to meet lots of amazing people. Some of that comes from where conferences in our field end up being hosted, and other parts come from the field work.
…ON LEARNING ABOUT CORAL REEFS BY COMING FACE-TO-FACE WITH SHARKS:
One of the more remarkable places I’ve gotten to go has been Palmyra Atoll. It’s a place that The Nature Conservancy currently owns. It’s this tiny little coral reef atoll, about 1000 miles south of Hawaii, sort of in the middle-of-nowhere Pacific Ocean. It has some of the healthiest reefs I’ve ever had the good fortune to visit.
When you first jump in the water there and realize how many sharks are on a healthy reef, it’s a very humbling experience. You feel very, very small and definitely like an alien in someone else’s world. It’s amazing. In most places, the sharks have been so overfished and so hunted that you’re really lucky to see one shark. In some places I’ve been, you can spend hundreds of hours underwater and never see a shark on some of these reefs. And in other places you get really excited if you see one a week or one every couple of weeks. But on the atoll, you jump in and you’re one and they’re 18. It makes an impression.
And they’re just going on about their business. It’s very nerve wracking at first, for those first couple of minutes when you’re getting used to seeing them all around. And then you realize they’re not that interested in you, they’re just doing their own thing – this is their world, this is what a normal coral reef looks like, and just because you’ve never seen a reef that looks like this doesn’t mean it’s not how it’s supposed to be.
And that can totally change the way that you think about how a coral reef is supposed to work. The amount of energy that it takes to support the giant biomass of these sharks is totally different than in a system where so many fish have been fished out and you might just have lots of little fish that are just eating plankton or algae and most of the predators are already gone. It definitely makes you appreciate how limited our scientific understanding of how coral reefs work would be if we never got out to these places that are untouched or less touched—they serve as incredibly important benchmarks for “healthy reefs”. When we’re talking about conservation or protecting a reef or conserving something, we have to define what state we want to see it conserved in.
…ON THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ABLE TO VISUALIZE YOUR SCIENCE:
I would describe myself as an imaging junkie with a passion for the ocean. It’s a nice bonus that I get to image on the big scale while we’re diving and then spend much of my time in the lab imaging at the small scale with microscopes.
Microscopes are really fun not just because they make pretty pictures, but because they open a window into the inner workings of the microbial world. And what I love about the microscopes is that they allow us to see things we can’t otherwise see. I like the challenge of making the unseen seeable. We have a lot of high powered tools to help us do that. At the end of the day, a picture really is worth a thousand words. When you can watch these things on their tiny scale interact with a coral or something else, you can learn a lot about what they’re doing.
My goal is really to be able to take the way that people have done ecology for hundreds of years, for example with binoculars out watching birds in the forest and learning about the different niches they fill, I really want to be able to do that with microbes in the same way and it takes some pretty high-powered tools to be able to watch the microbes in action. That is what has made me an imaging junkie.
Folks, she’s not kidding about making really neat images. Check out some amazing close-ups of coral reef bacteria – including a video that shows them all swimming around – in this Wired article.