Snapshot: Dr Anne Dekas

Dr Anne Dekas of the Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, USA, shares her experiences in working in the marine sciences
Snapshot: Dr Anne Dekas

Name: Dr Anne Dekas

Position: Assistant Professor of Earth Science

Institution: Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, USA


Tell me a little bit about your research

I study the microbiology and biogeochemistry of the deep sea: the largest and least explored habitat on the surface of our planet. I investigate the diversity, distribution, and activity of marine bacteria and archaea driving carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur cycling, with a focus on processes directly and indirectly involved in the production and consumption of greenhouse gases (e.g., methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide). Using techniques from both molecular biology and isotope geochemistry, I investigate questions such as: (1) “who” is doing “what” (linking phylogenetic identity to physiological function), (2) what are the biogeochemical controls on metabolic rates, (3) how do specific metabolisms affect global scale biogeochemical cycles and climate, and (4) will these metabolisms act as a positive or negative feedback to climate change?

How did you become interested in marine science?

I am an explorer at heart. My childhood dream was to be an astronaut; I was inspired by the adventure and potential for discovery. As I grew up, I realized I didn’t have to leave the planet to push the limits of human exploration and knowledge—the deep sea held enough mysteries to keep me occupied for life. My favorite part of my work is fieldwork, when I travel to the bottom of the ocean in small submarines to collect samples. It’s not unlike being an astronaut here on Earth. My interest in marine science is therefore twofold: (1) to explore the remote and unknown corners of the Earth, and (2) to specifically understand how marine microbial life has shaped the chemistry of the Earth over time, and how it will continue to do so in the future.

What is the most interesting thing about marine microbiology?

I think the most interesting thing about marine microbiology is how such tiny cells can collectively have such a big impact on the chemistry of our planet. Although individually negligible, the microbial cells in our oceans together oxygenated our atmosphere over two billion years ago, and they continue to regulate its chemistry and climate today.

What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing the oceans and marine science?

Undoubtedly, the biggest current challenge is climate change. As oceans become warmer and more acidic, and oxygen minimum zones expand, marine life will have to change at every level of the food chain, from individual bacterial cells to multi-ton mammals. Change is not novel on Earth, but the rate at which change is currently happening may outpace the natural stabilizing feedback mechanisms and adaptive capabilities of most taxa.

The theme for the 2015/16 World Oceans Day is ‘Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet’ – what does this mean to you?

To me, ‘Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet’ refers to the close link between the health of the oceans and the health of the whole planet. We cannot apply an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality to our oceans—how we treat them will directly impact how they treat us.

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