Microbial oceanographer Deepa Rao will speak at College of the Atlantic on Oct. 31. PHOTO COURTESY OF COLLEGE OF THE ATLANTIC

Role of ocean microbiome to be illuminated

BAR HARBOR — The role of marine microbes in shaping a healthy planetary environment will be presented by microbial oceanographer Deepa Rao at College of the Atlantic’s Human Ecology Forum in McCormick Lecture Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 31, at 4:10 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Rao will introduce microbial oceanography, an interdisciplinary field that endeavors to understand marine microorganisms from genomes to biomes, with the goal of connecting microbial metabolisms and interactions to ecosystem function. She will discuss her work examining the environmental and ecological feedbacks in the ocean in order to understand how marine microbes shape ocean food webs and the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Deepa is doing fascinating research using both computational modeling and field work to understand interactions in marine microbial communities,” said David Feldman, COA math and physics professor. “We are lucky to have her visiting College of the Atlantic, and I am excited that our students and faculty will get a chance to learn about the important and fun work she is doing.”

According to Rao, a doctoral candidate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program for Biological Oceanography, microorganisms are the metabolic engines that drive the Earth’s nutrient cycles. The global ocean, she points out, is predominantly microbial. Every single drop of seawater is inhabited by a microbiome consisting of diverse bacteria, phytoplankton and viruses.

Collectively, photosynthesis by marine phytoplankton produces half of the Earth’s atmospheric oxygen, as much as by land plants.

Rao will highlight the role of ecological theory and mathematical models as useful lenses to examine the foundations of complex ecological systems, test hypotheses and complement and interpret field and lab observations. She also will discuss her ongoing research into measuring and mechanistically modeling cooperative interactions (e.g. mutualism and facilitation) between bacteria and phytoplankton.

“Since oceanography requires a comprehensive understanding of ocean physics, chemistry and biology, it is an exciting field for interdisciplinary thinkers who enjoy the challenge of connecting phenomena from molecular to global scales,” she said.

Rao earned a bachelor’s in earth, atmospheric and planetary science from MIT and a master’s in communication, culture and technology from Georgetown University. She is advised by Professor Mick Follows and works with the Darwin Group to model interactions between bacteria and phytoplankton in a global ecosystem model. Outside of research, she loves traveling, painting, hiking and reading a good sci-fi story.

The Human Ecology Forum is a free, weekly speaker series based on the work of the academic community, which also draws on artists, poets and political and religious leaders from around the world. Members of the public are invited to attend.


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