Dr. Cindy Lee Van DoverInterview with Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover

Why are you interested in gas hydrates and deep-sea biodiversity?

I have never seen a gas hydrate, though there are huge reservoirs of gas hydrates along the margins of our continent. They look like dirty ice, I am told. But the ice includes a lot of frozen hydrocarbons, especially methane, which means that it may be a valuable, exploitable energy resource. The methane also is important for biological energy systems, which is where my interest really lies. Methane can be used by microorganisms to fuel their metabolism. It is food. Some animals, like the mussels we expect to find at the Blake Plateau gas hydrate site, host those bacteria inside their tissues – a form of endo- (within) symbiosis. Waste products from the bacteria are delivered directly to the mussel, so the bacteria become food. It is a simple and elegant food chain: methane to bacteria to mussel. It is a food chain that is independent of a direct source of organic carbon produced by photosynthesis. At Blake Ridge, we will collect the mussels and work with colleagues in other laboratories to determine (using molecular techniques) if the mussels and their symbiotic bacteria are new species.

We know of other habitats rich in methane that support mussels. Many species of invertebrates live among the mussels – animals like shrimp and snails, brittlestars and sea cucumbers. My lab has studied the animals that live in mussel beds all over the world, in shallow water and especially in deep water along mid-ocean ridges and continental margins. We are always on the search for new species and are often rewarded with new genera and sometimes even new families of organisms. There are no Audubon Field Guides to the animals that live at places like the Blake Ridge Plateau mussel beds. It is truly unexplored. Is the Blake Plateau animal assemblage unique? If it is, then we must take this into consideration if the Blake gas hydrates, which lie within our Exclusive Economic Zone, are to be exploited. My laboratory is interested in patterns in distributions of species – in biogeography and biodiversity -- and in gaining some understanding of why species occur where they do. As we discover new animal species, we are always on the lookout for novel adaptations. It is not enough just to put names to animals. Perhaps we will discover relic species from ancient seas, known only as fossils until we uncover them in the deep sea. I am especially eager to find a live trilobite! I am certain we have not discovered all of the ways that animals adapt to extreme environments such as deep-sea gas hydrates. From experience, I know that sometimes discoveries like these are not recognized immediately in the field, especially when the time in the field is so brief. But in the laboratory, we become sleuths to rival Sherlock Holmes, searching for novelties that teach us new things about life on our planet.

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?

My decision to become a scientist was made during the summer of 1970. I had just finished my sophomore year in high school and, having taken a marine biology field course offered by my school the summer before, I enrolled in ‘advanced’ marine biology, which placed me in a real research laboratory. It was a shellfish research lab located in an old Coast Guard building on the Atlantic Coast of New Jersey near my home, and was operated by Rutgers University. I spent my summer days studying clam biology. I loved everything about it, from the cool, dim wet lab where the animals lived, to the orderly dry lab and its shelves of beakers and flasks, its autoclaves and incubators. I loved the idea that doing research, one is encouraged to ask questions and then to find the answers – all while being paid to do it. And I loved the people who worked in the lab. I was part of a team, and I was hooked.

Who were your role models? Why?

The technician who ran the shellfish lab and the Professor who directed that lab were my earliest scientific role models. It was on the strength of the impression they made on me that I chose to go to Rutgers University. The Professor continued to be my role model and my mentor for my entire undergraduate career. My graduate advisor, Fred Grassle, was and always will be a role model. He has a tremendous breadth of knowledge and is visionary, guiding ocean science in new directions – would that I had the same talents. To name names, though, is to slight the many others who guided and inspired me, who showed me what I might do. As a young woman, my role models were men, because that’s who did oceanography. I now look to women like Kathy Sullivan, the astronaut, and oceanographer Sylvia Earle as role models, because they are so effective in educating students and adults about science. When I began to write, a host of writers also became my role models – people I would never meet but whose words drew me to them and taught me, people like Rachel Carson and John McPhee, Sue Hubbel and John Murray.

Who encouraged you in your pursuit of science?

Certainly not my high school guidance counselor who, back in 1971, advised me that I was not college material. Or perhaps it was precisely this guidance counselor who did encourage me, altogether without intention, because I have often sought to accomplish what others tell me I cannot. By my recollection, my parents neither encouraged nor discouraged me. I have the sense that they humored me. "When are you going to stop that diving?" are words with which my mother has often challenged me. But I reveal here both my age and my mother’s generation. Surely no student now is ever discouraged from going to college or exploring the deep sea! Along the way toward science, I have indeed received much needed encouragement from many individuals, but I began my pursuit of science because I needed to do science. It was my passion. As a graduating senior from high school, I did not receive the award as best in science. Grave disappointment, because even then I was certain that I would be the one in my class to become a research scientist. I am well known by my close friends for my "I’ll show them" approach.

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

Black smokers and giant tubeworms. I am a veteran of over 100 Alvin dives; I have seen many, many fascinating things. But nothing can surpass the sight of a black smoker belching out hot fluids laden with fine black minerals, two miles below the surface of the sea, or the brilliant crimson plumes of tubeworms—shouts of exuberance against the perpetual darkness of the abyss. I never get tired of these sights, I always pause to let my mind embrace the sheer wonder of these novelties and the privilege given to me as I look upon them.

How does your research affect us?

Perhaps it will be your generation that lights its houses with methane extracted from the seabed off the Carolinas. Our research begins to make that off-shore resource less of an abstraction. It is one thing to tap methane wells into the continental shelf when all one sees are waves tossed about on surface waters miles above. It is quite another thing if one knows that an entire assemblage of animals makes a living off that same methane and that those animals may not be found anywhere else on the planet. Perhaps the resource will be tapped nonetheless, but at least it will be with some knowledge of what price will be paid. We know nothing about the dense communities of animals that thrive on methane at the Blake Plateau. All we have prior to this cruise is one photograph and one broken-up mussel. We need to know what is there.

There is more to our research than this practical side. We are truly exploring. We do not know what kinds of animals we will find, nor how special they might be. Probably they will all be familiar. But perhaps we will find those trilobites, or some other equally fascinating novelty of nature. There is even a chance that we will find nothing but mud. By following Deep East dives to the seafloor, you will become an explorer too. When I was young, I thought all the world was known, the list of explorers complete. Not true. There are oceans to be explored, on our planet and elsewhere. This is the lesson for you.


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