(Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences-Microbial Ecology Laboratory)

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Arizona Insect Festival!

This year’s insect festival (put on by the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Entomology Department) was yet another success! Here’s a group picture of the volunteers, and some of the bugs: the Cactus Longhorn beetles decided they were going to mate the entire time.

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Now for a quick comment on networking. Recently, I attended the Fall Fest, put on by the Institute for the Environment. After the speeches ended, people milled around, and in a haze, I felt as if I was seeing my entire high school experience flash before my eyes, yet again. These adults formed cliques faster than you could say socially awkward. I stood in the corner and found myself befriending the bartender. He kindly gave me a plastic cup of water instead of alcohol. After much debate, I decided to walk up to one of the younger looking women in the room, and said, quite robotically and in the exact words of the bartender’s suggestion: ‘hello, my name is Rose, what is your name and what do you do?’ She was quite amused, but happy to speak with me. And, as it turns out, knew nothing of the institute because she had only been working for them for three weeks. I desperately asked if she knew anyone else in the room who might have contacts in the National Parks Service, but to my dismay, she couldn’t help me. I left, holding the non-alcoholic beverage as if to affirm my age.

I wish I had spoken to some people now. As undergraduates, I believe that we should all make attempts to talk to more accomplished people, even if it ends in a simple word of wisdom. And opportunities pop up everywhere! I had the good fortune of sitting next to a park ranger on a greyhound bus of all places, for example. Conversation is a skill, and the more questions you ask the better. You just can’t be afraid to ask them. As soon as you do, off goes the other person, talking and talking about their story, and everyone has stories that they love to share. It’s that simple. I hope to have the courage next time something like this happens.

And with that, I leave with a Disney quote. Have a good weekend, everybody!

Walt Disney Quote

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Exploring Ancient Life and Making Life-Long Connections

Ever wonder how life originated? Did it happen on Earth? When did it happen? How did it start and who was first? The chicken or the egg? No, when life started it was definitely a microbe and an autotroph (makes its on food, like a plant). Still reading? This means you are interested in the fields of astrobiology and geobiology.

This summer I spent five weeks traveling around the western US researching geobiology through the USC international GeoBiology course. First two weeks involved traveling around Southern California and Nevada collecting stromatolites, environmental, and microbial samples. Sample sites included Walker Lake, Mt. Dunfee, Rowlands Reef, and Little Hot Creek. During this time we also had a little fun visiting Mono Lake, The ancient Bristlecone Pine forest, and the The California Science Center. The California Science Center setup was great. They had each of Earth’s biomes in different rooms and even had a special Arctic and Antarctic room! As amazing as the “polar room” was, my favorite part was the special exhibit of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. I have always loved NASA and this experience to touch and see a shuttle that had been in outer space was phenomenal.


The Endeavor space shuttle being feature at The California Science Center


A microbial mat collected from Little Hot Creek and the four microbial layers are labeled


The open valley in Nevada where we collected stromatolite samples near Mt. Dunfee and Rowlands Reef


Gary and other geobio students analyzing field samples

 Weeks 3 and 4 were at CSU-Fullerton processing samples and coming up to speed on modern geological and biological techniques. Each day we honed in on a specific technique involving rock cutting, stromatolite identification (also abiotic versus biotic), Qiime analyses, Confocal and Epifluorescence microscopy training, geochecmistry, and microbial metabolism analyses. At the end of these weeks we were treated to a full day tour of NASA and California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. This is extreme nerd-landia! We got to meet Dr. Kevin Hand and he showed us some test rovers.


Dr. Kevin Hand showing off Mars lander rovers


Gary getting ready to see how much weight a rover can carry

 The final week was at the USC Wrigley institute for environmental studies on Catalina Island, where we pulled data and analyses to write and present a final presentation entitled: How do microbial mats become stromatolites?


The microbial mat group


A collection and fun day at Catalina Island

 This course was the best academic experience I have had so far!

In all, 15 graduate student and postdoctoral researchers from throughout the world participated in the interdisciplinary summer program, which takes a hands-on approach to exploring the Earth and its biosphere. The discipline combines earth science and biology to look at how life leaves an imprint on the Earth’s chemistry and its mineral deposits. It examines how those interactions have affected the planet’s past and present — and how they may affect its future.

I really enjoyed this trip, the people, and all the instructors. Thanks to: Hope Johnson, Sean Lyod, Bradley Stevenson, Frank Corsetti, John Spear, Will Berelson, John Chase, Chase Williamson, and Russell Shapiro. Special thanks to all the TAs who helped teach, guide analyses, and provided entertainment Blake Stamps, Victoria Petryshyn, and Carie Frantz. My heart goes out to Ann Close and Amber Brown for coordinating us, planning events, and feeding us every day!

The course was sponsored by: Agouron Institute, National Science Foundation, Colorado School of Mines, California State University, Fullerton, Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations, and USC Wrigley Institute.

The course runs every June-first week in July and applications are due in February. For more information check out the website: https://dornsife.usc.edu/wrigley/geobiology/



The Geobiology 2014 group!

Tuning Into Science


Most people get weak in the knees when they think about public speaking; sometimes the anxiety leads to cold sweat and an extraordinarily upset stomach. I am no exception. You would think that by now, being a violinist and ballroom dancer, that performances would be second nature. Walking into a recital? Shouldn’t it be so easy to logically think your way out of the situation? I’ve tried everything, from hours upon hours of practice, to getting angry at myself and saying how it won’t do to worry about it, to meditation… ohmmm. And then… boom there goes an entire half of a memorized Mozart Concerto, as if it were never there. And in that moment, what’s left but to fake smile comically as if it never happened?

But really, performance anxiety is something that doesn’t exactly go away, ever. My father, a trombonist, STILL experiences it at the age of fifty. So where now?

Acceptance. You just have to realize that crap will happen, not everything will go as planned, and you will feel this way. Just accept the feeling as being legitimate and work with it. Our biggest fallacy as people is to push away all negative feelings as if they don’t exist, but let’s be honest, life isn’t coffee and chocolate cake, and anxiety is just as real as happiness. When the adrenaline starts pumping, all of that energy can be channeled into something positive… like the violin or an extremely passionate speech. Do not make the mistake of lying. Oh, you’re not nervous? Well now that you’ve said it, you may as well just stake a claim to the nearest bathroom stall because that is where you will be thinking about it for the next hour.

But don’t take my word for it. After all, I am still in the process of perfecting my speeches myself. It’s taken me years of performance and generalized anxiety just to understand some rudimentary details like how to avoid eating something greasy or worse, Panda Express, before going in for an interview or audition. Do not ask me about how to slow down my talking and breathing, which in my case is usually a hyperventilation episode. But don’t wait, either. Everyone is different, and it is best to start experimenting with the anxiety sooner rather than later. This is something that as scientists, we need to start working on now, and perfect, until maybe we do get to that point of retirement, with so much accumulated respect, that we can say whatever we want.

Why do I bring this up now? Recently, I had the honor of going on a weekly program called the Thesis, run by Tucson’s own local radio, KXCI. Undergraduate researchers, specifically those involved with the Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP) go on to talk about their research, and are asked to bring in two recordings of music that most influenced them as scientists. Seeing an opportunity, I offered to play the violin instead. This was like a double whammy: I got to get my name out there as a musician and scientist, and I got to experience double nerve trouble (DNT, it is now a thing)!

Of course, this wasn’t something I was banking on doing, even a month ago. Opportunities such as this often arise out of the blue. As scientists, we have to be prepared at any given moment to explain what we do to the lay person. As the head of UBRP would say, we owe it to them. We are their tax money at work. That is why it is so important to be able to pull out an elevator speech, no jargon attached, to explain the information that you so well know. Do NOT assume that they will immediately know what you are talking about. On KXCI I made the mistake of saying that microbes ‘protect’ the Great Barrier Reef, and had to respond to the interviewers confused expression- how?? I wish that I could say that I cooly responded with our exact hypothesis, but I ended up stumbling all over the buzzwords: acquisition, uptake, transformation… Be prepared for sidetracks and roadblocks. Something else that I am starting to realize: prepare for questions and do not stick to a single script. Get a feel for what people think is the most interesting or cool, and know how to respond to that with excitement. When I mentioned that I am working with Great Barrier Reef data to my interviewer, of course she had to ask whether I got to go. That is a general trend that I see in people, and am now prepared for. And unfortunately no, I do not, but maybe someday!

And in the end, I played the violin, dedicating it to our awesome former lab technician, RJ, and my younger brother, Ben, who had kindly arranged it for me. The interview was of course, nearly 100% professional, but keep in mind that your persona doesn’t always have to be this way. I personally enjoy hearing people bring something of their own to the table, and it is always nice to acknowledge fellow lab members, mentors, and especially family members. I call it the ‘awwwww’ factor.

Wrapping it up, did my experience go as planned? Of course not!! 🙂 I didn’t glance at my carefully crafted script once. I messed up TONS of chords. Did anybody notice? Well, only my family members 😉 Point is, though, I managed to work around it. I viewed it as an accomplishment, and the first step in growing as a scientist. There is much more to come, and I have only just started. I am grateful for having been given this unique opportunity and look forward to more in the future.

And for all the rest of you budding scientists, best of luck! Be sure to smile, and enjoy every second of chest ripping, blood pumping, adrenaline filled glory.

Here’s the official recording: https://ubrp.arizona.edu/the-thesis-sarah-vining/

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Environmental Microbiology in the High Arctic

Swimming in icy cold fjords, Summer barbecues at 4C, insomnia under the midnight sun, polar bears roaming about… I was in no doubt that I was somewhere like nowhere else on Earth. If I was even on Earth at all. The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) is the world’s northernmost institution of higher education, located at 78º N in Longyearbyen, Norway. There, I fell in love with the amazing landscape and the diversity of life! The fauna and flora of Svalbard includes more than 1,800 marine invertebrate species, 1,200 terrestrial or freshwater invertebrate species and over 170 higher plant species in addition to the 21 mammal and 28 bird species.

While it is a stunning environment, the high Arctic is is harsh, and the challenges microbiologists face in the high Arctic were due to low biomass, unknown target, unknown selection pressures, the remote fieldwork, low activity of microbes, contamination, and typically only getting one initial sample.


photo 1 photo 2

The general course description as advertised on the University Centre of Svalbard’s website can be found here: http://www.unis.no/STUDIes/Arctic_Biology/ab_327.htm

Course outline

    • 4 lectures per guest lecturer
    • 5d lectures and seminars (some evenings)
    • 7d laboratory practicals (3 themes)
    • 7d fieldwork (3 themes)

Major Topics Covered

    1. Eukaryotic Microbiology
    2. General Ecological Principles
    3. Cryoconite, Glacier and Aerial Microbiology
    4. Terrestrial Microbiology and Nutrient Cycles
    5. Molecular Microbial Ecology (a and b)


    • David Pearce, University of Northumbria & UNIS, Aerial Microbiology, Glacier Microbiology, Hot topics in Arctic Microbiology
    • Malu, University Centre of Svalbard, Arctic Microbiology
    • Giselle Walker, Laboratoire d’Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution, Protistan biogeography and ecology  & Biogeochemical cycles
    • Pete Convey, British Antarctic Survey, Terrestrial Ecology of Arctic and Antarctic systems
    • Antonio Alcami, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid & National Center for Biotechnology (CNB), Viruses in polar marine environments & Metagenomics of viruses in water
    • Chris Laing, University of Exeter, Modeling & Adaptation to low temperatures
    • Lise Øvreås, University of Bergen, Arctic marine microbial diversity & Molecular microbial ecology (soil and marine)
    • Arwyn Edwards, Aberystwyth University, Cryconites & bacterial communities of Svalbard glaciers; Bioinformatics
    • Chester Sands, British Antarctic Survey, Systematics & Bioinformatics
    • Matthias Zielke, Bioforsk Norwegian Institute for Agricultural and Environmental Research, Arctic microbial ecology, C & N-cycles in Arctic soils
    • Marek Situbal, Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Microbial communities on glacier surfaces and ice sheets


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“Tucson” tack

In Swedish Tusen tack means 1000 thanks. I like this because Tusen sounds like Tucson! 

Anywho Tusen tack to everyone in the lab for helping me this summer. I am super excited to be working with such awesome people in the office again!

Cheers to having a great semester:)10438638_273602416177267_626349687097286555_n

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Summer Update: Stable Isotope Ecology

Some may think that summers for grad students are all about fieldwork. This is TRUE! Mostly. It’s also about taking fantastic intensive summer training courses. In June I spent 2 weeks in Salt Lake City, Utah learning about the many ways stable isotopes can be used in ecology and biogeochemistry. It was a fantastic course in which I learned as much as could be packed into my little brain, met many impressive researchers, and made friends with a diverse and wonderful group of graduate students. In short, this course is highly recommended to anybody interested in stable isotopes, and/or biogeochemistry. In long, see below for a course description and list of lectures. Please feel free to ask me if you want to learn more about any of these topics or hear about the fantastic lab sections! Or visit the course website: http://stableisotopes.utah.edu/isocamp.html


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From the course website:

“The concept is to bring students and researchers together from around the world, teaching them about stable isotopes in biogeochemistry and ecology and developing careers in this next generation through lectures, training sessions, and laboratory experiences. IsoCamp facilitates the development of long-lasting friendships and future collaborations.”


Thure Cerling Utah Terminology, fractionation, analytical measurement approaches

Todd Dawson Berkeley Isotopes and meteoric, source, and plant waters

Craig Cook Wyoming Intro to IRMS instruments

Ehleringer Utah Plant carbon and related processes in terrestrial ecosystems

Eve-Lyn Hinckley NEON NEON and stable isotopes

Steve Leavitt Arizona Carbon isotopes and the long-term climate record in tree rings

John Roden S Oregon U Leaf water, oxygen isotopes, and the long-term climate record in tree rings

Renee Brooks EPA QA/QC and data analysis

Jed Sparks Cornell Nitrogen transformations within plants and in ecosystems

Seth Newsome New Mexico Body water and animal physiology as integrators of geography and diet

Thure Cerling Utah Reconstructing Diet and Tissue Turnover in Animals

Carly Strasser California Digital Library Data management

Howie Spero UC Davis Biogeochemistry of the Oceans

Brian Popp Hawaii Biology of Oceans

Rebecca Powell Denver Remote sensing

Dave Bowling Utah Carbon Dioxide and the Carbon Cycle

HJ Jost Thermo Fisher Scientific IRIS CO2

Jim Ehleringer Utah Forensics: geospatial applications

Dave Williams Wyoming Biosphere-atmosphere coupling of the water cycle

Elise Pendall Wyoming Soil Biogeochemistry and Stable Isotopes

John Hayes Woods Hole Oceanographic Instrumentation for isotope analysis

Thure Cerling Utah Soils and Carbonates

Hagit Affek Yale D47 analysis

Lesley Chesson Utah Stable isotopes and Food

Kate Freeman Penn State Biomarkers and Environmental Reconstruction