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Microbial Ecologist Alma Dal Co Dies in Diving Accident

At 33, Dal Co had already founded her own microbial ecology lab at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

Alma Dal Co wears a blue shirt and red necklace and uses a pointer to examine a component of a laboratory machine. 
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Katherine Irving is an intern at The Scientist. She studied creative writing, biology, and geology at Macalester College, where she honed her skills in journalism and podcast production and conducted research on dinosaur bones in Montana. Her work has previously been featured in Science.

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ABOVE: Microbial ecologist Alma Dal Co Félix Imhof

Italian microbial ecologist Alma Dal Co died last week (November 14) at the age of 33. Dal Co had started a lab last year at the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland focusing on the behavior and structural organization of microbial communities and was one of the youngest people ever to be appointed as an assistant professor at the university.

“This week’s loss of Alma Dal Co is devastating for those of us who knew her, who worked with her, and were friends with her,” fellow microbial ecologist and group leader at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) Michael Manhart tweeted. “She was a talented scientist who made valuable contributions to microbial ecology, but more importantly, was a kind, generous, and ceaselessly enthusiastic person.”

Dal Co died while spearfishing off the coast of Pantelleria, a small island in southern Italy where her parents owned a house. She had gone out on a boat with a local friend. While the current was too strong at first, prompting Dal Co to remain on the boat, la Repubblica reports, both divers went in once they reached calmer waters, then became separated during the dive. After resurfacing and seeing no sign of Dal Co, her friend went in search of her and found her body resting on the seafloor. He attempted to revive her, but to no avail. An autopsy to determine her cause of death is ongoing, la Repubblica adds.

Dal Co was born and raised in Venice, where she developed her love for music, another passion she held alongside spearfishing. “If I’m not in the office, I’m at the piano. If I’m not at the piano, I’m under water spearfishing,” her Harvard University profile page states.

According to her Harvard biography, Dal Co obtained a master’s degree in piano from the Conservatory of Venice before making the switch to science. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Padua and the University of Turin, respectively, before becoming captivated by microbial biology. In 2019, Dal Co completed a PhD in systems biology at ETH Zurich, where she studied how individual cell interactions shape microbial community behavior. She went on to do a postdoc at Harvard, where she continued her research on complex biological systems and cell-cell interactions. She then joined UNIL in 2021, where she founded her lab with a combination of physicists and biologists. The lab celebrated its one-year anniversary this October, and Dal Co recently won a grant to continue her research, according to a tweet from the lab. Her most recent paper, published in March, proposed a model using the molecular mechanisms behind cell-cell interactions to better understand community-level properties and processes.

“Alma embodied the ideals of interdisciplinary science, and was a true modern polymath,” according to a statement from the UNIL Department of Computational Biology. “She loved to connect concepts, ideas, and techniques and people across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.”

In addition to tweeting about her research, Dal Co would often post videos of her playing piano. “I was really excited there is a musician in our department,” writes Yinyin Ma, an environmental microbiologist, violinist, and Dal Co’s former colleague, in a memory book created by UNIL. “I watched almost every clip [she] shared.”

“We will miss her intelligence, charisma, enthusiasm and passion for science,” the UNIL statement concludes. “The outpouring of grief and support from the local and wider community is a testament to how deeply Alma touched us all.

Dal Co is survived by her parents, Mario Dal Co and Margherita Turvani.

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