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Research Feature: Spice Up Your Subsurface Research with a Little Sushi and Sumo
From November 16-21, 2008, in Shizuoka, Japan, the International Society for Subsurface Microbiology (ISSM) will hold its seventh international symposium. Rick Colwell (COAS) is the "president-elect" of the ISSM, an honor conferred on the host of the last meeting which occurred in August 2005 in Jackson, Wyoming. Rick is enthusiastic about the upcoming symposium and hopes a large group from OSU will participate. The society is making travel awards of up to $1500 available to students and young researchers (application deadline April 30) and abstracts for presentations can be submitted until June 16. In this short Web interview, Rick describes ISSM and why he thinks it is such a valuable meeting.
What is the International Symposium for Subsurface Microbiology and how did it get started?
The first ISSM took place in Orlando, Florida, in 1990 and began as the field of subsurface microbiology was starting to take hold. At that time, a few subsurface locations had been searched for microbes and scientists were finding to their surprise that life was relatively abundant at depths greater than that of soils or plant roots and that these communities of microbes appeared to be underground residents. Most of the early studies were driven by an interest in learning how to control or encourage bioremediation of contaminants in aquifers, a problem of growing concern in the U.S. and abroad. However, these early days of the science of subsurface microbiology also invited basic research investigations because we simply did not understand what life existed at depth, how numerous it might be, how active it was, and what subsurface properties might control these biological attributes of the deep earth. As the discipline matured new reasons for the research became apparent including understanding how the subsurface of the earth may be a model for life on other planets, investigating the extraction of fossil energy and other natural resources, or studying how well certain repositories might stably contain their waste. In some cases, it seemed that these deep environments could have been contaminated by the mere act of trying to get the samples or as a result of constructing a well in an aquifer. So we had to develop new approaches to collect samples that were representative of the subsurface and not the drilling fluids used by the drill rigs to collect the samples. The early meetings were good opportunities to share methods for collecting deep samples.
Since 1990 the meetings have occurred every three years somewhere in the world. The venues for the first six meetings were in the U.S. or Europe and it is appropriate that Japan host the 2008 meeting as the Japanese have been so active in this field of research.
Who attends the symposiums and what types of presentations do you expect to hear in Japan?
At the last meeting in Jackson, Wyoming, attendees came from 15 different countries. There is strong representation from the U.S., Europe, and Asia. The attendees come from disciplines including microbiology, geochemistry, environmental engineering, astrobiology, hydrology, and petroleum engineering. While the meeting was founded amongst people studying the terrestrial subsurface, now there are many in attendance who are piqued by investigations of the subseafloor. Scientists interested in modeling subsurface microbial processes have increased their representation at the last few meetings. In addition to what you might call the classic subsurface microbiology talks that deal with topics like bioremediation and simply exploration of novel subsurface niches, each meeting hosts some truly exciting new areas. At the last meeting we had a couple of papers that discussed biogeophysics--a new discipline composed of microbiology and geophysics jammed together to remotely sense subsurface biogeochemical processes. It might be extreme to say that the audience was enraptured by such talks but I’ll bet there were a few “aha!” moments. Though the attendees may originate in a particular discipline they bring to the meeting an appetite for cross-disciplinary treatment of subjects.
What have you particularly appreciated about past symposiums?
Meetings like ISSM focus on a specific subject through the course of the week. The science of the subsurface biosphere is addressed from multiple angles such as methods of microbial characterization, new environments sampled, new applications, and future directions for the field. The small size (about 300 attendees) makes the meeting comfortable and accessible for anyone new to the field including students and researchers who are just beginning subsurface studies. Usually, there is a balance between plenary and concurrent sessions so most people can see the talks of interest without having to go too far. Even if you miss a talk, the speakers are at the meeting all week and you can always find the chance to sit down and talk. For students, this is especially nice as some of the speakers are quite prominent in the science and at such a small meeting they are approachable and usually not running off anywhere. A faithful group of attendees means that you have the chance to reconnect with friends from different countries on a frequent basis and make new friends.
In addition to the technical sessions, what other opportunities will there be at the symposium?
Outside of the technical sessions there are always great meals with friends. There are always informal meetings planned simply because people of a common interest are together. In Japan, I expect that there will be some discussions dealing with planned Deep Underground Science and Engineering Lab (DUSEL) that is in the planning stages in the U.S. Over the years, we have had the good fortune to visit some nice places for this meeting so it has become something of an expectation among the attendees that the meeting location must be picturesque or maybe even fantastically beautiful. The meeting is punctuated with a free day on Wednesday when we can put our own trip together or take advantage of one of the field trips provided by the hosts. New research ideas and teams come easily when you’ve enjoyed a hike on a mountain trail, danced a polka, or played an impromptu soccer game with colleagues from around the world.
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