What is your current job and what does it entail?
I am an associate professor at the Center of Marine Biotechnology, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute www.umbi.umd.edu/). My research is on various aspects of marine microbiology, especially the study of marine bacteria that may be important sources of new bioactive compounds, such as antibiotics. We study bacteria associated with marine sponges and find in some cases that these bacteria are the true producers of the important compounds obtained in these invertebrates. By isolating the bacteria and growing them in fermentation systems, we can produce these important compounds (including antimalarial and anticancer compounds) on a large scale without having to harvest the invertebrates. I spend a few weeks each year doing research cruises to collect samples, but the majority of my time is spent working with graduate students in my laboratory, writing grants to raise money to fund the research, and writing papers describing our findings. I still manage to spend some time actually working on the bench myself, immersing myself in the practical aspects of microbiology and molecular biology.
What was the key factor in your career decision?
What do like most about your career?
The first important step was deciding to study microbiology, which seemed to me like an aspect of biology that was interesting and at the same time opened up many job opportunities. My move into the marine environment came later in my career, after I had finished my Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular biology. I joined the laboratory of Dr. Rita Colwell because of her interest in marine microbial ecology. I loved the marine work and am now lucky enough to combine two great interests, microbiology and the marine environment.
I enjoy spending time at sea and have had the opportunity to dive in three research submarines, the RSV Alvin, the Johnson Sea-Link and the Japanese Shinkai 2000. I like actually working in the laboratory, playing with my bacteria. Microbiology is endlessly fascinating and is a vital component of all biological systems. I appreciate the freedom that I have as a researcher to set my own goals and follow my own research interests. It is also great to have many opportunities to travel and to work with people from different countries.
What do you like least about your career?
I don't enjoy having to spend so much of my time writing grants and working on budgets.
What do you do to relax?
I work out at the gym and enjoy doing practical things such as gardening and maintaining my own car. I like old cars, and have a Land Rover that is 50 years old (older than me!). I like to get out into the country and am fortunate to have old friends living in a rural part of West Virginia. I enjoy photography and visit photographic exhibitions. I used to do a lot of sailing, but don't find the time for it now. I want to start sailing again because it is the ultimate relaxation for me.
Who are your heroes/heroines?
What advice would you give a high school student who expressed an interest in pursuing a career in your field?
Nelson Mandela, for having the courage of his convictions and for his role as a statesman in South Africa and the world. The men and women who serve as crew on research vessels, persevere under difficult conditions, tolerate sometimes difficult and eccentric scientists, and keep marine science moving forward.
Develop a strong academic background. Make sure that you study molecular biology if you want to work as a marine biologist because molecular techniques are becoming increasingly important in all aspects of biology. Internships are really important and helpful in selecting your career focus. Work in many different areas of biology while you are at high school and college. Many researchers will take on volunteers over the summer and this is a great way to get experience and find out which aspects of marine biology are the most enjoyable for you.
Are career opportunities in your field increasing or decreasing and why?
Increasing. There is a growing awareness of the importance of microbiology in all marine processes. Marine biotechnology as a field is also growing in importance. There are many practical applications of marine biology and biotechnology in drug discovery, aquaculture and monitoring for pathogens in the marine environment.
What will you be doing 10 years from today?
I hope to still be running my own laboratory as a tenured professor. I will be supervising a small but active group of five to eight graduate students and postdocs. I will continue to encourage high school students and undergraduates to consider marine microbiology and biotechnology as career options by hosting summer students. We will be making a major contribution to the isolation of novel microbes that produce important pharmaceuticals and industrially important enzymes. I will still participate in research cruises and work in the laboratory myself. I also hope to have started a successful biotechnology company and see some of our discoveries contribute to providing new drugs, especially for malaria. And I hope to have an oceangoing sailboat!
Salary: $80,000 - $100,000