Featured student: Ryan Sibert

Featured student: Ryan Sibert
Ryan Sibert, demonstrating how the multiple corer works at a media day in Gulfport, MS. (c) ECOGIG

November 04, 2014

What is your educational background? I received my undergraduate degree in Geology from Western Michigan University in 2010, my MS in Geochemistry from Western Michigan University in 2012, and am currently pursuing a PhD. in the Marine Science Department at the University of Georgia under the supervision of Dr. Samantha Joye.

Where are you from, and how does it compare/contrast to your current location? I was born in Kalamazoo, MI, but raised in the sleepy, grape-loving backwater of Paw Paw MI. I moved back to Kalamazoo after 18 years and found myself acting (in order) as a union carpenter, house painter, machinist, barista, cook, and finally a student again. Kalamazoo is home to good music, good people, people with good taste in music, good food, a supportive artistic community, fantastic beer (home of Bell’s Brewery), two colleges (one community, one private), one University, an annual piano players festival, the ruins of the now defunct Checker Cab factory, and is the original home of the Gibson Guitar Company. The city once had an electric trolley running through the center of town, but it was scrapped in 1932 in favor of the diesel buses produced by General Motors at the behest of an organization secretly headed by Alfred P. Sloan (then CEO of GM; go figure). The design and execution of Kalamazoo’s wastewater treatment system is second to none, so I guess most people are fine with how the trolley situation panned out. We don’t drink any of this masterfully refined water, of course. Instead, we let it spill aimlessly into the Kalamazoo River and tumble its way, trouser over teakettle, through Superfund designated PCB-laden riverbed before it’s eventually swallowed up in the bosom of Lake Michigan. Despite what sometimes feels like perpetual bureaucratic dysfunction, the people of Kalamazoo remain vigilant; they are talented, terrifyingly brilliant, strange, considerate, compassionate, and hardworking. The city itself is rather small by most modern standards, but the people of Kalamazoo make the place seem larger and brighter than it has any right to be. I have been living in Athens, GA for the last two years and the city resonates at a similar frequency as Kalamazoo. It’s just hotter and with marginally better biscuits. Athens is slightly larger than Kalamazoo and packed with music venues, art collectives, eclectic food, excellent beer, friendly people, a major research University, and a culture with a strong thirst for American football. Athens is also home to the world’s first and last double-barreled Civil War era canon. I’ve been told it never ended up working properly, but it sure adds some Southern pomp to the front steps of the courthouse.

What aspects of your life, education, etc., led you to become a scientist and drew you to the research you are doing now? Curiosity and a love of nature are key drivers shared by all environmental scientists. This is really no great secret. I am unexceptional in this regard. I have always been curious about nature and would rather have my boots vacuum-locked in the mud of a wetland, hiking in the mountains, fishing, having a conversation about physics I don’t fully understand, or slaving away on a research vessel than stuck behind a desk any day. Of all things nature has to offer, I love water the most. I grew up fishing for blue gill, perch, and bass on small freshwater lakes with my grandfather. I picked up fly-fishing in high school and began fishing the small rivers and streams near my home. The decay I perceived in these aquatic systems (e.g. the Kalamazoo River) drove me to learn more about conservation measures I might take to help protect these natural resources. My early plan in college was to major in both Environmental Studies and Creative Writing, with the goal to become knowledgeable enough about ecosystem processes that I could raise public awareness about human-scale impacts on the environment through writing and public dialogue. I stayed the course for a little while, but started taking more Earth science classes as my interest in the geosciences grew. After a few semesters of flirting with the hard sciences, my Mineralogy professor pulled me aside one day and told me that I was some strange kind of English student. She ended up offering me a job in her geochemistry lab shortly thereafter. The bribe struck home, and I ended up working in Dr. Carla Koretsky’s lab for nearly 4 years (I earned an MS in her lab in that time). Now here I am: exploring the biogeochemistry of the Gulf of Mexico with Dr. Samantha Joye.

How did you become involved in ECOGIG? I joined the Joye Research Group in May of 2012 and was immediately introduced to the many amazing activities and people of ECOGIG.

What is your role and specific research in the ECOGIG project? My work on nearly every ECOGIG cruise I have been on in the last two years has been to calculate rates of methane oxidation and sulfur reduction in a variety of Gulf sediments using radiotracer techniques employed commonly by the Joye Research Group. We use these data to compare rates of methane oxidation and sulfate reduction between oxygen rich abyssal sediments, anoxic cold seep sediments, and sediments impacted by the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. My dissertation work, however, is exploring the microbial production and consumption of non-methane, short-chain alkanes in the oil and gas rich sediments of Gulf of Mexico cold seeps. I am currently running a series of experiments to determine what conditions and substrates facilitate non-methane alkane production, what microorganisms may be responsible, and ultimately what metabolic pathways these organisms may employ.

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? ECOGIG is the only major, interdisciplinary research project I have had the opportunity to participate in. I have immensely enjoyed the experience thus far.

What is the history of your cruise participation, ECOGIG or otherwise? Dr. Joye is very serious about her students spending plenty of time in the field. The following list should speak to this:

R/V Endeavor, ECOGIG cruise EN509, Gulf of Mexico
R/V Endeavor, ECOGIG cruise EN510, Gulf of Mexico
R/V Endeavor, ECOGIG cruise EN515, Gulf of Mexico
R/V Pelican, ECOGIG cruise, PE1331, Gulf of Mexico
R/V Endeavor, ECOGIG cruise EN527, Gulf of Mexico
R/V Endeavor, ECOGIG cruise EN528, Gulf of Mexico
R/V Western Flyer, Northern Expedition, 2013, Pacific Ocean
R/V Atlantis, cruise AT26-13, Gulf of Mexico
E/V Nautilus, ECOGIG cruise NA043, Gulf of Mexico

What do you like most about working at sea? Working at sea is an experience like no other I have encountered so far in life. Being out in the field for weeks on end means you basically live with your work, sometimes for 20 hours a day. The phrase ‘live with your work’ does not strike many people as a healthy way to live a human life, but I find the experience strangely fulfilling. Living the work for short periods of time is utterly immersive in a way the regular classroom can never be. The concepts and practices needed to further my understanding of the Gulf ecosystem (from surface ocean to abyssal deep) and the processes that drive productivity in the deep ocean become clearer to me every time I am at sea. In this respect, a research vessel is one of the best classroom settings I have ever had the pleasure to work in.

What, if any, novel or unique findings have you had? My MS work back in Michigan focused on the effects of road de-icers on the geochemistry of freshwater lakes in urban settings. I found that repeated application of road salt (typically NaCl) during the winter months in Kalamazoo, MI, decade after decade, has raised the salinity of one urban lake (Woods Lake) nearly 30 fold when compared to similar lakes in the surrounding rural countryside. Rather than raise the salinity of the entire lake uniformly, road salt influx during the spring thaw has created a significant salinity differential in the water column (i.e. 150 ppm chloride at the surface vs. 290 ppm chloride in bottom waters). The density differences due to salinity appear to outstrip the temperature driven components, effectively preventing seasonal lake turnover. Without such seasonal mixing, the bottom waters of Woods Lake remain anoxic year-round, leading ultimately to persistent, vertical stratification in redox sensitive solutes of biogeochemical interest (e.g. oxygen, iron, manganese, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, sulfur, calcium, magnesium, etc.). The relatively large volume of anoxic waters at the bottom of Woods Lake combined with elevated nutrient loads common to many urban waterways has facilitated uninterrupted annual production of methane in this system. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and freshwater lakes already contribute large quantities of this gas to the atmosphere. By disrupting seasonal turnover of Woods Lake through the continued application of road salt during the winter months, bottom waters produce methane in a much greater volume of water and over longer timescales than it would otherwise. Small, freshwater lakes are abundant in urban areas in much of the Northern United States, and salt deicing strategies are incredibly common. While the jury is most certainly still out on this one, it seems that seasonal road salt application around urban waterways during the winter months may contribute significantly to the atmospheric greenhouse budget over time. The results of this work are currently in review.

My recent work with ECOGIG is twofold: I am exploring 1) microbial production/consumption of short-chain, non-methane alkanes in cold seep sediments in the Gulf of Mexico, and 2) alternative metabolisms in bacterial species living symbiotically within the gills of Bathymodiolus mussel species found around areas of active oil and gas seepage on the northern continental slope of the Gulf of Mexico.

I am currently running experiments to determine if Gulf of Mexico sediments harbor microorganisms capable of producing ethane, propane, and butane, using Gulf sediment slurries amended with a variety of substrates and gas concentrations. Parallel sets of experiments are being used to determine rates of microbial non-methane, short-chain alkane oxidation using similar experimental parameters to tease out both gross and net production of these gases in Gulf sediments. These experiments are in the early stages but the results are already promising. Promising sediment slurry amendments will undergo a battery of enrichment and isolation experiments to hopefully pinpoint the organisms capable of alkane production and consumption, the geochemical signatures associated with such activities, and the metabolic particulars on how these organisms make their living. Watch this space for more.

My work with Bathymodiolus mussels is extremely new, but preliminary data suggest that the bacterial partners living within the gill epithelium are capable of metabolizing a wider range of substrates than previously imagined. As unsatisfying as this is to report, watch this space for further details coming soon.

What do you see as your major contributions to the ECOGIG program?  My work has the potential to help constrain the sources of natural gas input into the Gulf ecosystem, and will help identify some key microbial players in carbon and sulfur cycling in the oil- and gas-rich sediments in the Gulf.

Is there anything else you would like to say about your ECOGIG involvement and its effect on your science?Being involved in ECOGIG has presented me with some truly amazing experiences and learning opportunities over the last couple years. I would like to thank all the PIs and students involved with ECOGIG as well as the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative for the funding, drive, good humor, and experience they have gifted me.

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