WOODS HOLE – Julie Huber ponders the origin of life. She has seen things almost no one else has ever seen, and knows about things most of us do not know. She is a scientist.
“It is, in a lot of ways, a privilege to study the planet and try to understand how it works,” said Huber, an associate scientist with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. Specifically, Huber is a microbial oceanographer. She studies microbial life near underwater volcanoes.
“I always say that I don’t actually do anything practical,” she said. Instead, hers is pure science, studying “organisms that could be relatives of some of the earliest forms of life… and thinking about how all of that happened.”
According the Mitch Sogin, Distinguished Senior Scientist at MBL, and a colleague of Huber’s, her science “is certainly exploratory.”
“The answer (to why study microbes) is the same as why did we go to the moon.” said Sogin. “We want to know more about the world that we live in,” he said. “How it evolved and how it came to be. For the first 80 percent of our history, maybe more, all of life was microbes.”
“Julie is trying to expand our knowledge of the diversity of microbes, and give insight into their evolutionary history, and what the first microbes might have looked like,” said Sogin.
According to Huber, most of the world’s volcanoes are underwater and studying the microbial life where the ocean crust is forming has brought many surprises through her career.
“More than anything, I’m less opinionated,” she said. “The more we learn about microbial life in weird places, the more we learn that it’s incredibly complicated and hard to predict what might have happened. In some ways, I’ve probably become more open.”
“I’ve become more open minded about possibilities,” she explained. “About how things work in the world these microbes live in.”
For instance, said Huber, some microbes, unlike all of us who receive our DNA from our parents, “can defy the rules of evolution. They can swap genes,” she said. “They can also pick up DNA that is in the environment.”
Huber and her team, along with many others, gather samples from around the world from the bottom of the ocean. Those samples are then analyzed in her lab in Woods Hole. She has five people working in her lab.
“This isn’t something you can automate,” she said. “There’s people behind it. It takes a lot of time, years I would say. This isn’t a lab working on only one organism.”
When Huber was a young girl in Chicago, she said, “I was so strange. My parents loved seafood, but I refused to eat it.”
That is how much Huber, who remembers watching Jacques Cousteau movies as a child, has always loved sea life.
“I am definitely one of those weird people” who always knew what she wanted to do for a living,” said Huber, who spent much of her childhood in Chicago visiting the Shedd Aquarium. “I wanted to be a marine biologist.”
In the Shedd Aquarium, said Huber, “There’s this big center tank in the middle of the aquarium with all sorts of different creatures in there. A diver would go in there. I wanted to be that diver.”
Her interest was more than just the wonder of the sea. It was a thirst for knowledge. “My mother tells the story of when I was about 5 years old at the Shedd Aquarium, and I saw a clownfish together with an anemone, and I said, ‘Look Mommy, they’re having symbiosis.” Symbiosis is “a mutual association that benefits both animals,” she said.
By that definition, Huber’s visit to the Shedd Aquarium was perhaps symbiosis for the young girl and the undersea world.
Huber spent her childhood in Chicago and then moved with her family to Toledo, where she went to high school. Her father was in business sales and her mother stayed at home. As for her interest in marine biology, Huber said, “My parents aren’t sure where it came from.”
But it has always been there. “My Mom saw a spark, and my parents encouraged it,” said Huber.
She learned to scuba dive in a swimming pool in Ohio. When she was 16, she attended a summer camp for oceanography in Maine, where she spent “two weeks living in a dorm with like-minded people.”
Although Huber was always clear what she wanted to do, her childhood and high school years were “totally normal,” she said. She played field hockey. She was in dramas and musicals. She was in the choir. She was on student council.
Years later, at her 20th high school reunion, Huber said, “absolutely nobody was surprised” at her career choice. Quoting someone from her reunion, Huber said, “That’s what I remember about you, Julie. You were the fish girl. You were going to go study the ocean.”
Although she had done the summer camp in Maine, when it came time for college, Huber said, “There was no way I was going to college in Maine, because it’s too cold.”
Instead, she went to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. “When I went into college, I thought I would be Jacques Cousteau,” said Huber. She had a general idea that she wanted to study dolphins, but her interests, a splashy scientific discovery, and a mentor took her in a different direction.
In 1996, recalled Huber, there were reports that evidence was found of microbial life on a Martian meteor. Those reports have since been “totally debunked,” she said.
But this new speculation from this field of astrobiology, which is “thinking of life outside of Earth,” said Huber, was part of the beginning of bringing microbes to her attention.
About this same time, she said, “My mentor was a biogeochemist. I started thinking about microbial life,” she said. “I found a niche. I very quickly figured out that there was a lot more to study.”
Her new field would take her to the bottom of the ocean. She would even potentially contemplate life on Mars. One thing she realized was, “There’s no dolphins living on the bottom of ocean or on other planets in our solar system.”
Instead, there was something deeper. “There’s very few ecosystems that we’ve been to that we can’t find evidence of microbial life,” said Huber.
She did her graduate work in biological oceanography at the University of Washington in Seattle.
When Huber headed west, she realized how much her perspective was influenced by the place she grew up. As a child of the Midwest, she said, “I didn’t really know that there were active volcanoes in the western United States. This was a basic fundamental geological process that I didn’t know about.”
But more surprising and interesting than the volcanoes in the west, were the volcanoes under the ocean.
For her thesis paper, Huber said she “studied the microbes living in ocean crust, in the rocks that make up the seafloor, the sub seafloor, and life beneath the seafloor in an active underwater volcano. 300 miles off the coast of Oregon, and a mile deep.”
She had an advisor, John Baross, a professor in oceanography and astrobiology at the University of Washington, who was interested in life in extreme environments. According to Sogin, Baross “was a colleague of mine who I had known for many years.”
Sogin and Baross have since published a paper together.
According to Sogin, Huber came to MBL in the NASA’s Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. Sogin was her advisor.
Huber now runs her own lab.
When she first arrived, said Sogin, she brought samples from the underwater volcano off the coast of Oregon.
Since then, Huber’s lab has gathered samples from “mostly underwater volcanoes, but not exclusively,” she said.
Geographically, samples have come from “all over the globe,” she said. She cited the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the “mid-Cayman rise, south of the Cayman Islands and south of Cuba.”
“My daily job sounds kind of boring. I sit at the computer a lot. I talk on the phone a lot,” said Huber. “It’s a very academic life, I guess.”
But her ordinary routine – ordinary at least on the surface – requires samples from extraordinary places.
It works like this: “Every year, we have a research cruise or two. We go for two to four weeks. My group goes once or twice a year,” said Huber. She goes on many but not all of the research cruises.
Typically, she or her staff go out on the Atlantis, a research ship of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. According to Sogin, “There are a lot of people who go out on WHOI ships from all over the country.”
From the ship, researchers gather their underwater samples using a manned underwater vehicle such as Alvin, or an unmanned underwater robot such as Jason.
“Physically, there are samples,” she said. “Using a robot, we collect water, or rocks, or whatever.” The samples are then brought on board the ship, she said. “We might do some experiments at sea. But most of the real work happens back in the lab.”
“We bring back a whole mixture of organisms,” she said. Back in the lab, using “basic microbiological technique,” Huber said samples are separated so that individual types of microbes can be studied.
“We look for their DNA. We try to grow them in the lab,” she said. “We make a best guess at what the organisms are eating and at what temperature.”
Although her research is pure science, she said her lab has been contacted by industries interested in possible uses for microbes she has isolated. “I get inquiries,” she said. “They say, ‘we’re interested in screening the organisms in your lab.”
Microbes can sometimes be manipulated by altering things such as temperature, which may make an individual organism act differently, said Huber. Inquiries have come from the biotech industry and the agricultural industry, she said.
So while Huber has said that she doesn’t do anything practical, Sogin pointed out, “In fact, her work will probably contribute to the planet, but she just doesn’t know that yet.”
The science is hard, time-consuming collaborative work. “One of the things that kept me in it is I am a social person,” said Huber. “It’s not like I am going out on these ships alone. It’s fun to be on a ship, for instance, with an geophysicist and try to learn what he’s doing.”
Huber defined success as “discovering something new and sharing it with the world, and gaining new knowledge.”
Not all of her work is successful, she said.
“Sometimes you do hit a dead end, and that’s important to the process too,” said Huber. “It doesn’t feel as good. You don’t go out and have a bunch of drinks and celebrate. But it’s still important.”
“The world has changed a lot since I was a kid,” said Huber. “I didn’t know a single scientist my entire childhood,” she said.
And so Huber has taken to social media and educational talks to spread the word that science is cool.
“Julie handles that as well as anyone I know,” said Sogin.
“There are two opposite extremes,” said Sogin. “There are people who are quiet and don’t want the publicity, and there are scientists that just love the publicity. She doesn’t care about the publicity. But she is delighted about sharing the fun of science with the general public. Sharing the intellectual satisfaction.”
“What’s wonderful about Julie is the way she talks about the science, and the people and spirit of doing the science,” said Sogin.
Her Twitter account, @JulesDeep, is a favorite of Cape Cod Wave, sometimes tweeting about her science but often linking to interesting science stories in which we always learn something.
“Putting a face behind science is important,” she explained of her Twitter presence. “Now, with social media, it’s so easy to reach out to all sorts of different types of people..”
“People are really excited about it,” said Huber. “They ask questions: ‘How can I do that? Or they’ll say, ‘I didn’t know any place like that existed.’ ”
Her science is “especially interesting to people who don’t live anywhere near the ocean.”
And while hers is a specific science, Huber said, “There are all sorts of different sciences. You don’t have to fall in one box.” In fact, she described a science career as “good for people who have trouble focusing. If you get bored with one thing, you can move onto the next.”
Huber doesn’t seem to get bored. In fact, as she said, she is constantly surprised.
And she is defensive of the reputation of science. “People get their arms up with words like ‘theory’ and ‘interpretation.’ Those are politically-charged words,” said Huber. “But that’s how science operates. It goes through a process. It is peer-reviewed…. There’s a real process behind it. It’s not like I just come up with a theory.”
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— Brian Tarcy