Oonagh Bodin - Interview with postdoc Dr Lucy Stewart

Posted by on 12 August 2016 | Comments

I was lucky enough to meet Lucy in New Zealand earlier this year where we had both been invited to the New Zealand Microbial Ecology Consortium (NZMEC4.0) in Auckland. Lucy introduced herself upon realizing that she had worked in the same laboratory, in Massachusetts, as one of my PhD supervisors (Dr Ashley Franks) during her own PhD. What a small world it is!

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Can you tell us a little about your PhD?

My PhD is in microbiology, and I studied at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the USA from 2010-2015. For my PhD, I looked at thermophilic and hyperthermophilic methanogens and sulphur-reducers from deep-sea hydrothermal vents, trying to quantify their requirements for hydrogen and energy. The goal was both to be able to model their growth in the difficult-to-reach subsurface environment, and to get some hard numbers on the limits for life in this environment.

What drew you to this area of research?

I was interested from a fairly young age in the idea of astrobiology – studying the potential for life on other planets – and one of the main fields in astrobiology is the study of life in extreme environments on Earth (which is, of course, mostly microbial). My Honours work, at the University of Canterbury, was on the ecophysiology of microbes from the Antarctic Dry Valleys. When I was looking for PhD programmes, I looked for departments that were strong in environmental microbiology, particularly extremophile environmental microbiology. The lab I ended up in happened to be a deep-sea hydrothermal vent lab, but at the time I wasn’t particularly intending to get into that specific area – I just wanted to work with extremophiles. Turns out deep-sea hydrothermal vents are really interesting just for themselves!

What are you currently studying/researching?

I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher at GNS Science in New Zealand, working on a two-year project looking at the microbial diversity of the Kermadec arc. The Kermadec arc is a line of volcanic activity along the plate boundary between the Pacific and Australian plates to the north of New Zealand. I’m trying to understand microbial diversity both in hot springs on islands along the arc – like the volcanic Raoul Island and White Island – and in hydrothermal vent systems. I’m particularly focusing on identifying microbes which are cycling iron and sulphur, as the geochemistry of volcanic activity in this region means there’s a lot of metals and sulphur available in the environments I’m interested in.

If researching in a different field from your PhD, have you been able to apply the techniques learnt during your PhD?

I’m still in the same general field – environmental microbiology of hot places - but I’m not working with methanogens anymore, which were the main focus of my PhD. However, the techniques I learned like anaerobic culture, working with thermophiles, inorganic metabolite assays, and the more general stuff like PCR and the use of bioinformatics programmes like QIIME or ARB…they’re still totally relevant. The specific organisms you study are way less important than how you study them.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully, building out my current programme of research at GNS. 95% of New Zealand’s territory is underwater, and we have literally dozens of hydrothermal vent systems within it – but there’s nobody else in New Zealand right now working primarily on hydrothermal vent microbiology. I think it’s really important for us to take responsibility for understanding biodiversity in this region, especially now large parts of the Kermadec arc have been proposed by the NZ government as a marine sanctuary. There’s still a lot to be done.

Why did you choose to study microbiology?

As I said earlier, I came to microbiology through my interest in astrobiology, but I stuck with it because I’m fascinated by how microbes form this vast interface between the living world and the world of geology and chemistry – they take inorganic substances and transform them, or make them available for biological use, and they do it in every environment you can think of. It’s just so cool.

Lucy tweets regularly @lcsnz check out her account to keep up to date with whats happening in her research!