Featured student: Tingting Yang

Featured student: Tingting Yang
Tingting Yang- Graduate student, Microbial ecology, Dr. Andreas Teske lab, Marine Sciences Dept., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (c) ECOGIG

January 25, 2015

What is your educational background?  From 2003 to 2007, I studied Soil Sciences and Plant Nutrition in Department of Resources and Environment as an undergraduate student at China Agriculture University (CAU). During that time, I found my interests in microbiology, therefore I joined Dr. Yahai Lu’s group in CAU as a Masters student from 2007 to 2009 to study soil microbial ecology in rice paddies, especially focused on functional genes quantification of Methanogens and Methanotrophs. My interests expanded from land to ocean: from 2009 to 2014, I was lucky to work with Dr. Andreas Teske in University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) , Marine Sciences Department, to pursue my PhD. degree. “Microbial Community Dynamics of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill” was my main project that I worked on together with other great scientists from ECOGIG. 

Where are you from, and how does it compare/contrast to your current location?  I am originally from China, where I was born and grew up and got my Bachelor and Master Degrees. The student life in CAU and UNC were similar, students of both were highly encouraged to get involved in their own studies and exploring new things. To me, study abroad provides me a great chance to communicate to people with very different cultures.  

What aspects of your life, education, etc., led you to become a scientist and drew you to the research you are doing now?  When I was a kid, visiting the Museum of Natural Sciences and reading books of natural stories were my favorite things. No surprise I chose an environmental related major as an undergraduate. In CAU, I was fascinated by the charm of the tiny microbes, and therefore decided to study microbes. My experience in Lu lab was a great start where I learnt to use molecular methods to study microbes. Since I was born in middle of China without easy access to sea, the ocean always showed up in my dreams. When I was studying soil microbes, very often I found useful literature from marine sediment studies. Therefore, I thought I can try to apply to a marine ecological microbiology program. Very luckily, I was accepted in Teske lab where I spent an amazing five years. With the great guidance of Dr. Andreas Teske and lots of help from my wonderful lab mates, I was able to study the Gulf of Mexico oil spill’s effects on the water column and sediment.

How did you become involved in ECOGIG?  In the summer 2010, our lab participated in several fast response cruises of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and we became part of ECOGIG program later on. I luckily became the first ECOGIG graduate student in our lab.

What is your role and specific research in the ECOGIG project?  As a microbial ecologist, I am particularly interested in studying the microbial dynamics during and after the oil spill, trying to understand the fate of the released oil and impacts of the spill to the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem including the water column and the sediment. By our long term and vast sampling starting in 2010, my current study obtained time serious water and sediment samples from pre-spill, spill and post-spill. By molecular microbiology methods, I was able to monitor the bacterial community shift and change caused by the spill. Together with geophysical, geochemical and other studies carried by other ECOGIG experts, we are looking forward to gaining a better understanding of the impact of the spill.  

Have you been involved in other projects and if so, how does your experience working in the ECOGIG program compare with your other research experiences?  All my other side projects were either designed as in-lab experiments or small projects collaborating with few people. My oil spill project is widely connected to a lot of other ECOGIG scientists who are experts in various disciplines. I benefited a lot from this interdisciplinary project and learned how to collaborate with people with different backgrounds.

What is the history of your cruise participation, ECOGIG or otherwise?  My very first cruise was a fast response cruise in May 2010 on the RV Walton Smith, one month after the DWH oil spill began. Dr. Samantha Joye was the Chief scientist on that cruise. Later, I participated in cruises in September 2010 (RV Pelican, chief scientist: Dr. Ken Sleeper), November 2010 (RV Atlantis with submersible Alvin, chief scientist: Dr. Samantha Joye) and July 2011 (RV Endeavor, chief scientist: Dr. Joe Montoya). They were mostly ECOGIG cruises. During these four cruises, I sampled the water column and sediment for molecular microbiology analysis by using CTD rosette and multi-corer, as well as the submersible.

What do you like most about working at sea?  I love fieldwork. The best part of working at sea is that it is the only chance to see my samples in their original status, which would be essential for the further study. Although people may suffer from the very slow Internet, I always enjoy the cruise time without too much interruption from emails and social media. It is a great chance to communicate with other people on the ship while enjoying the blue ocean.

What, if any, novel or unique findings have you had? From my studies, I found that the huge oil input largely affected the bacterial community in both the water column and sediment of the Gulf of Mexico. During the spill in May 2010, the deepsea plume, which was composed mostly of light hydrocarbons, was almost entirely populated by an uncultured DWH Oceanospirillales group with hydrocarbon-degradation potential. In the surface water heavily contaminated by oil, the dominant bacterial group was Cycloclasticus, an obligate PAH degrader. However, the pre-spill, outside plume and all post-spill samples had much higher bacterial diversity. The sedimentation of hydrocarbons during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill directly changed the benthic bacterial community in the oil-contaminated seafloor sediments near the Macondo wellhead. Compared to 16S rRNA clone libraries from unpolluted sediment collected in early May 2010, the bacterial community in oil-contaminated sediments collected in September 2010 showed a sharp increase in Alphaproteobacteria (mainly Roseobacter) and Verrucomicrobium; the obligate PAH-degrading genus Cycloclasticus was also detected. In October 2010, sediment samples which were collected close to the wellhead show high abundance in Bacteroidetes, the sulfate-reducing bacterial families Desulfobacteraceae and Desulfobulbaceae, as well as Cycloclasticus. The succession of the bacterial community indicated that the oil-derived sedimentation pulse triggered bacterial community perturbations and possibly created patchy anaerobic mini-environments that favored sulfate-reducing bacteria, even at the sediment/seawater interface.

What do you see as your major contributions to the ECOGIG program?   Since microbial mediated biodegradation is the only way to transform oil-derived hydrocarbons into biomass or remineralize them to CO2, observing how the bacterial community changed in the aftermath of the oil spill is of great importance for evaluating the inherent bioremediation potential of the marine environment. My study is an essential part to connect together the geophysical and geochemical results derived from other experts to better understand the fate of the oil released into the Gulf of Mexico.

Is there anything else you would like to say about your ECOGIG involvement and its effect on your science?  I am very lucky to have worked with ECOGIG throughout my five-year PhD. student life. Not only did ECOGIG support my on funding, ECOGIG taught me and helped me on my way towards becoming a real scientist. I cruised together mainly with ECOGIG scientists, and during my cruises I learned how to communicate with scientists and ship crew at sea and gained my first experience of organizing a cruise. Also, collaborating with other ECOGIG scientists greatly helped me to interpret my own data and to understand the impact of the oil spill more accurately. What’s more, I learned how to perform good research from these outstanding experts. They helped me in clarifying my research goals, supported me maximally and polished me to be ready as a real scientist. I greatly thank them and appreciate ECOGIG for providing the great opportunity.

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