Dr. Joan BernhardInterview with Dr. Joan Bernhard

Why are you interested in deep sea biodiversity?

I am interested in studying the organisms living in cold seeps and those associated with gas hydrates because they are biologically adapted to what we humans perceive as "hostile" environmental conditions. Briefly, any metazoans living there should not be able to do so because the chemistry of the environment should inhibit respiration. The protists (single-celled eukaryotes) living there also are likely to have interesting adaptations, some of which may not yet have been discovered by science. In sum, I am interested in organisms living in extreme environments because some of these environments may have been the cradles of early evolution on Earth or on other planets.

At what age did you decide you wanted to become a scientist? Was your decision related to any specific event in your life at that time and if so, what was that event?

Apparently I decided to become a scientist before third grade. I vividly remember this fact because I misspelled the word "science" on a spelling test after which the teacher said to me " Well, since you want to be a scientist, you better learn how to spell the word." In addition, I have always loved the water (I grew up living on lakes and spent about every free moment in the water or in boats).

Who were your role models? Why?

I suppose one role model I had early on was a female biology teacher in high school who made learning biology fun. All other role models were college professors or research scientists I interacted with during my graduate studies.

Who encouraged you in your pursuit of science?

I did not need encouragement; it was obvious that science and math compelled me. I did not care much for history, English or other non-scientific fields.

What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen in the deep sea?

Since I work primarily on microscopic organisms, I don’t see organisms that interest me until I get them on the ship. But, the most fascinating thing to me was seeing small crustaceans swarm over a freshly disturbed seafloor exposing anoxic and hydrocarbon-rich sediments. Why those crustaceans were not avoiding the supposedly toxic compounds emanating from the fresh exposure eludes me to this day. Although some larger crustaceans are known to be tolerant of hydrogen sulfide, little is known about the adaptations of the tiny organisms I observed.

How does your research affect us?

Some of what I do and what I am searching for might reveal novel things about the function of certain organelles in deep-sea organisms. Although it is too complicated to go into here, biology textbooks may have to be revised after we finish our studies on two particular types of organelles.


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