Victoria Orphan wanted to be a marine biologist ever since kindergarten. She even wrote it down in a Dr. Seuss book called My Book About Me. It still sits in her childhood bedroom, which she had painted to resemble a deep-sea scene.
At the University of California, Santa Barbara, Orphan studied marine biology and was headed in the direction of big-game ecology when she took a course with Ed DeLong, now a microbiologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She had a realization. Methodological advances, especially in phylogenetics, were beginning to open new doors for microbiologists. Meanwhile, she says, "There were too many questions and not enough answers in microbial ecology."
Orphan did her doctorate work under DeLong, and he encouraged her to go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, where her work carried her to the sea floor. She studied anaerobic oxidation of methane in ocean sediments. The process involves a partnership of organisms to strip free electrons from carbon and deliver them to an acceptor (sulfate).
Now at Caltech's division of geological and planetary sciences, she collaborates with her life partner and fellow biologist Shana Goffredi. Together they've been studying other symbioses in the deep, including "a worm, totally new to science, [that] lives in the bones of dead whales," Orphan says. This worm (Osedax spp.), related to the tube worms seen in deep-sea thermal vents, is essentially a habitat for bacteria.
Orphan and Goffredi frequently coauthor their papers. Referring to Orphan's thought processes as "inspirational," Goffredi says, "She's constantly reading and thinking about new ways to drive the research." Orphan recently enlisted Ben Harrison, a geochemistry graduate student, to help her in perfecting the use of electromagnetic gradients for separating in situ mineral samples from the deep subsurface. They'll then employ FISH and other molecular methods to identify and describe the metabolism of in situ microorganisms living on the minerals.
DeLong places Orphan as "the front runner of geobiology." Christopher House, at the department of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, says that the depth of her collaborations is one reason for her success. "Victoria is an ideal collaborator. In fact, the deeper she goes as she teams up across disciplines to solve problems, the more successful our work together has been."
Title: Assistant Professor, geobiology