Never stand between a Scientist and their coffee…

There have only been a few times in my life that I have truly had any form of job-related jealousy. Whenever I watch a Vlogbrothers video (particularly Hank Green’s science related rambles) I get the urge to write or create more… and then I remember I have a thesis to finish. Every time I read an article in the Scientific American or New Scientist I mentally insert my name in the byline; and I’m not going to lie, I’ve walked past the traffic controllers on Broadway in Sydney a few times and thought “man that’s a sweet gig”.

But one time I’ve truly felt a deep seated “wow! You have the coolest job in the world” was listening to Dr Lynn Rothschild at the International Phycological Congress a few weeks ago.  At this conference, the main (plenary) talks were held just before the coffee break. In my experience, you generally want to do everything else apart from get in between a group of scientists and their coffee but at this talk… It was so fascinating and enthralling that it went for half an hour longer than it should have and no one noticed.

I think I first heard the term “extremophile” watching a David Attenborough documentary. I have this vivid memory of watching a researcher chip away at a glacier, looking for these tiny organisms that were known to thrive in the sub-sub-zero temperatures of the Antarctic. In her talk, Dr Rothschild defined an extreme environment as a physical or chemical extreme that tests an organism’s ability to use water and oxygen. Some examples of these sorts of environments are places like acidic pools of what is essentially battery acid in Yellowstone national park, the Dead Sea where salinity reaches 33.7% (the Ocean is about 3.5%), deep sea trenches where the pressure is enough to squish you like a bug, or closer to home, the extreme radiation caused by Uranium mines in the Paralana Springs in the Flinders Ranges.

Yellowstone Park acid pool
Yellowstone Park acid pool
The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea

Organisms that thrive in these environments have re-engineered their entire metabolic systems to cope. For example, there’s a strain of algae called Methanopyrus kandleri that has evolved to survive in temperatures of up to 121oC (that’s 249oF) by channelling an unusually high level of unsaturated fatty acids and lipids into their cell walls as a kind of insulation1.

Methanopyrus Kandleri (Yale University)
Methanopyrus kandleri (Yale University)

So apart from being completely fascinated by life in what surely must be uninhabitable conditions, what’s the point of studying these guys?

Back to Dr Rothschild we go. Lynn works for the NASA Astrobiology Institute, among other things. In her plenary talk, she spoke about her work mapping the limits of life on Earth in order to search for life on other planets, or possibly habitable planets for us in the probable event we screw things up entirely here on Earth. Once we know what and how things survive here, we extrapolate to the universe.

See what I mean about job jealousy?

Currently in our Solar System, planets and moons like Mars, Europa, Titan and Enceladus have been the source of plenty of speculation. Even if there’s no life there currently, the fact that the conditions on the planet match some of those found on Earth is encouraging from a Synthetic Biology point of view. Colonising planets and moons, Dr Rothschild said, is an interesting problem given that in space travel, weight = money, severely limiting the amount of stuff you can take with you. The current billion dollar question is whether or not we can entice life to flourish on planets with nothing but the right conditions.

An ice geyser on Enceladus
An ice geyser on Enceladus (NASA)

The more I read up on Extremophiles, the more I am completely astonished at their resilience and their inexplicable survival. They seriously should not be a possibility at all. Listening to Dr Rothschild speak about the implications of their very existence and the options it opens for us just blew my mind.

Then again, perhaps the topic was just a perfect combination of Science and Sci-fi geekery for my brain. You can be the judge.

Good grief! I appear to be in Florida!

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but I’m a bit of a raging introvert. (Not “raging” in the sense that I will stand in a corner and glare at people in parties… I mean that I’m very, very much an introvert…) So the general idea of visiting a park in the middle of a tropical summer surrounded by crowds and crowds of obnoxious, shouty, jostling, no-respect-for-my-personal-space-bubble people is just the complete opposite of appealing.

Which is of course why I’m currently in Orlando, home of Disneyland, Seaworld, Universal Studios, Wet’n’wild and Harry Potter world…..

Given the choice of places to visit, it’s definitely not at the top of my list. So the question needs to be asked; Why am I here?

Sometimes in your PhD opportunities get thrown at you out of left field. Three of those were lobbed at my head a few months ago, all of which were unbelievably exciting and definitely unexpected. Unfortunately, things need to be paid for by some form of currency and with the travel plans being made for an American Summer (read EXPENSIVE FLIGHTS) and the limited funds in my PhD budget, I’ve ended up only being able to take one of them.

But hey, 1 out of 3 isn’t exactly terrible is it?

So I’m here at the 10th International Phycological Congress and against all odds and my general dislike of crowds, I’m actually having a good time. Now I know you’re probably thinking “Dude. You’re in a foreign country on a trip you didn’t have to pay for at a conference a lot of people would probably kill to be at…” (Well you might not be thinking that last part… not all of you are Phycologists…. most of you are normal). But I don’t normally enjoy myself at conferences. Talking myself up to people I’ve never met is a decidedly uncomfortable experience for me. Putting myself out there in the form of my research is not something that makes me feel in any way secure. There’s always that nagging worry that someone’s going to be presenting the exact same thing as you or that you’re going to get completely shot down the dreaded minute the symposia chair turns to the audience and says “Any questions?”

I like to believe that’s normal, especially for a student with very little experience in the scary land of scientific conferences. Talking to some of the other students giving talks or presenting posters like I am, it seems like it’s a common theme. I think it’s one of those things that will just get easier the more I do it.

And despite all of my neuroses, presenting my poster actually went really well. (Regardless of the fact that it turns out someone is working on the exact same thing as I am on a much larger scale…. commence the publishing scuffle! – more on that later) And in spite of my general dislike for crowds of strangers, I’ve really enjoyed listening to some of the talks – like the one by Dr Lynn Rothschild on extremophiles and the search for life in the universe. Unbelievably cool.

I’m interested to know though – have you ever found yourself in this sort of situation? If so, what sort of things did you find helpful? I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds conferences abjectly terrifying. Let me know in the comments!

Anyway, I’m off for now. I’ve written up copious notes on Lynn Rothschild’s talk so I’ll hopefully be able to share it with you in an, unfortunately, much less eloquent way. Stay tuned!