C-MORE Researchers in Hawaii Probe Marine Microbes, Train a New Cadre of Scientists

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Picture the head of a pin. Now divide the head of that pin into a few million pieces. One of those tiny pieces is about the size of a marine microbe. From ice sheets in Antarctica to the depths of the Pacific Ocean, these tiny creatures are both pervasive and essential members of the marine ecological system. Microbes make up over 90 percent of the ocean’s biomass. They form the base of the marine food web, recycle nutrients, and produce oxygen. They even helped create the ozone layer. All other life forms on Earth could not exist without microbes. Yet even though microbes play such an important role on Earth, we know very little about them – their size makes them difficult to study.

Fortunately, researchers at the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) are exploring how microbes influence the structure and function of the global ocean. C-MORE was established in 2006 as a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center. Based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UH Manoa), C-MORE also includes five other institutions on the U.S. mainland that are leaders in the field of microbial oceanography.

Education and Outreach

In the inset photo, the tiny cube on the finger measures 1 mm on each side and represents a volume of 1 micro liter. The main photo shows the vast numbers of microbes in 1 micro liter of seawater. The big red and green dots (numbering about 1,000) are bacteria, and the very small background dots (about 10,000) are viruses (Photo: G.F. Steward).

In the inset photo, the tiny cube on the finger measures 1 mm on each side and represents a volume of 1 micro liter. The main photo shows the vast numbers of microbes in 1 micro liter of seawater. The big red and green dots (numbering about 1,000) are bacteria, and the very small background dots (about 10,000) are viruses (Photo: G.F. Steward).

In addition to broadening our understanding of marine microorganisms, C-MORE is working to entice and educate the next generation of ocean and earth scientists. C-MORE’s Education and Outreach program, which is run by UH Manoa faculty member Dr. Barbara Bruno, has three main goals: increase scientific literacy in microbial oceanography, provide state-of-the-art training to the next generation of microbial oceanographers, and increase the number of under-represented minorities pursuing careers in the geosciences, and related science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

According to Bruno, education isn’t secondary to research at C-MORE. “Education and diversity are big components of the center,” she said.

C-MORE’s outreach program strives to get everyone interested in ocean and earth sciences, but specifically focuses on Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders – groups that are currently underrepresented in the Hawaiian geoscience community. Only 13 out of 344 undergraduate majors in the School of Oceanography and Earth Sciences and Technology (SOEST) at UH Manoa during the 2007-2008 year are Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders. “As the only Science and Technology Center based in Hawaii, we are in a unique position to broaden participation among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” said Bruno.

As the C-MORE education coordinator, Bruno has spent the last couple of years tackling the challenges involved with recruiting and retaining Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students to the geosciences. From pre-college curriculum enhancements to undergraduate programs, Bruno and her team are using strategies that are considered as the best practices to attract and retain members of this community.

In August 2008, C-MORE launched the C-MORE Scholars Program to give undergraduate students opportunities to have paid, hands-on research experiences. A key ingredient in this program is community.

‘For the program to work, even though the internships are individual in the sense that students are mentored by one faculty member‰Û_ we try to create a sense of community,” Bruno said.

Bruno and C-MORE Scholars program manager Dr. Barbara Gibson work to provide a supportive community for the first cohort of C-MORE scholars. In addition to having faculty mentors, C-MORE scholars support each other. Gibson organizes events for the C-MORE scholars that help them form social and professional networks and there is a lounge where the scholars can meet, study, and network. These initiatives help create a community for the students where the students feel comfortable interacting with each other and sharing their common interest in science. “It is a way of validating the science part of their lives,” said Bruno.

Additionally, Bruno and Gibson find it valuable to get families and community members involved with education, and try to communicate the science in locally and culturally relevant contexts. “Typically, Native Hawaiians are heavily influenced by family in terms of career options or degrees,” said Gibson.

C-MORE scholar Brenner Wai working in the lab (Photo: C-MORE).

C-MORE scholar Brenner Wai working in the lab (Photo: C-MORE).

The C-MORE Scholars program gives students the experiences they will need to succeed as scientists. “It’s not just about them learning science methods, it’s about them learning life skills as well,” Gibson said.

As such, a part of this training is helping students develop the people skills necessary to work in a diverse environment. The ten students making up the first group come from diverse backgrounds – there are two Native Hawaiians, a Pacific Islander, an African American, a Hispanic, two Native Americans, two Asians, and a Caucasian.

The ultimate goal of the C-MORE Scholars program is to encourage the scholars to pursue careers in ocean or earth-related fields. “It would be terrific if one of our scholars, especially a Native Hawaiian, continued on to get a graduate degree and came back and was affiliated with C-MORE research at a higher level,” said Gibson. ‰ÛÏIt would be even better if a former C-MORE scholar became a future mentor and role model.”

The First Cohort of C-MORE Scholars

So far, the C-MORE Scholars program has been a success. The ten students making up the first group are strongly engaged in the research. “They are very enthusiastic and they’re excited to learn new things,” said Gibson.

Sara Thomas, a senior studying metrology, is one of the students in the first group. Thomas says the paid internship gives her the opportunity to do research while helping to lift the financial burden of attending school. “I thought it was really cool that C-MORE would help students who want to do internships, but can’t because of their financial situation.”

Brenner Wai, a senior studying global environmental science, is doing microbial oceanography research on nitrogen, in the lab of Dr. Matthew Church. Wai has only good things to say. “My experiences as a C‰ÛÒMORE scholar have been mind-expanding. Without this program, I wouldn’t use the things I learn in the classroom on a regular basis.”

“It seems like all the people at C-MORE have done so much to help me along the way this past year,” says Wai, who plans on applying to the UH Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology for graduate studies in oceanography. “‰Û_they are some of the most wonderful people I have ever met.”

Early and Promising Success at C-MORE

Brenda Asuncion, C-MORE’s first intern, joined the C-MORE research team in 2007. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in marine science at Hawaii Pacific University. She co-authored a peer-reviewed research paper that was published in The International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal on December 11, 2008.

Her paper reported the discovery of twenty new viruses that infect algae in the coastal waters of Hawaii. As microbes, algae are essential members of the marine ecosystem – providing a large amount of the oxygen we breathe. Viruses that attack algae can impact the lifestyle and growth patterns of these very important organisms. Despite their importance, algae-attacking viruses have not been intensively studied in subtropical waters. “This was the first attempt to describe this community in these waters,” said study lead author Dr. Alex Culley, a C-MORE post-doctoral scholar working in the laboratory of Dr. Grieg Steward.

In addition to describing new viruses, Culley, Asuncion and Steward found protein introns (known as inteins) ‰ÛÒ selfish, parasitic genetic elements or ‘viruses of a virus’ – in three of the viruses they identified. Future research needs to be done to examine the impacts of these inteins on the viruses. “This tells you how complicated things are even on a genetic level,” Culley said.

Asuncion played a key role in the research. “She was involved in some of the conception of the project, the sample collection and processing, and in writing the paper,” Culley said.

Asuncion appreciates Culley’s and Steward’s expertise and breadth of knowledge about marine viruses. “It was nice to work with them and see the steps taken in the various studies to get to the point where we are now‰Û_” she said. “They understand the field and know when something interesting comes up and can see how it fits [with] everything else.”

C-MORE’s Education and Outreach Program: Future Goals

Former C-MORE intern Brenda Asuncion (Photo: C-MORE).

Former C-MORE intern Brenda Asuncion (Photo: C-MORE).

As the C-MORE education program continues to grow and involve more local students, there will be more success stories similar to Asuncion’s, faculty believe. One way Bruno thinks C-MORE can attract more local students to geoscience careers is by starting earlier. “By the time students arrive at UH, they often have already chosen a major, and it’s not usually geosciences,” Bruno said.

“Many students come to UH Manoa after graduating from community college. In Hawaii, a lot of people go to a community college for two years and generally get a liberal arts degree,” she says. “Typically, they don’t take many science courses at community college, so when they come to UH Manoa, they may have to take three or four years of science in two years. This is difficult and can be discouraging.”

Just as the earth’s ecosystems thrive on diversity, the geoscience community will surely benefit from C-MORE’s outreach efforts aimed at broadening participation. Microbial oceanographers can learn a lot from the wealth of traditional knowledge that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders can bring to science. The local community is currently using oral history to help researchers who are studying volcanoes, but they can also help oceanographers better understand the marine ecosystem. “There is a lot of ocean-related traditional knowledge, especially regarding conservation,” Bruno said.