Research Feature: A Graduate Student's Perspective on 7th International Symposium for Subsurface Microbiology (ISSM)

Ellen Swogger, a PhD student in environmental engineering, just returned from the 7th Annual International Symposium for Subsurface Microbiology. The meeting was held November 16-21, 2008, in Shizuoka, Japan. In this short Web interview, Ellen describes some of the highlights from her trip.

How did you get the chance to attend the meeting?

The society that sponsored the meeting, the International Society for Subsurface Microbiology, offered student travel grants and the Subsurface Biosphere Initiative offered to cover additional costs beyond the amount supported by ISSM. My advisor, Lew Semprini, suggested I submit an abstract and apply for a travel grant. I didn’t end up receiving an ISSM award, but through ISSM I was later contacted by another group, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, which was also offering travel awards to the meeting. 

Another OSU student, Olivia Mason in Oceanography, did receive an ISSM grant. Olivia sent her poster, but in the end was not able to attend herself, so I was the only student from OSU. Professor Rick Colwell (Oceanography) was also there; he is the president-elect of ISSM and chaired the session on Petroleum and Gas Hydrates and gave an oral presentation on TCE cometabolism by methane oxidizing bacteria.

Ellen Swogger and other researchers at a Japanese Tea House.
Ellen Swogger (far right) and other ISSM researchers in a tea house in Shizuoka, Japan.

What was it like traveling to Japan and attending an international meeting?

I flew to Tokyo and took a two-hour bullet train ride south to Shizuoka, the city where the meeting was held. The landscape was really lush and green and part of the train ride went along the coast. My biggest taste of Japanese culture came from a day-long field trip around Shizuoka. We went to different shrines, an art museum and had tea in a Japanese tea house and garden.

The meeting was international but small – there were only about 220 attendees. That meant that there was a chance to have conversations with a lot of the group. The poster sessions were in the evenings and the small size of the meeting meant that people with a lot of different backgrounds came to see my poster – not just people within my specialty area. One thing that was impressive was to see so many people presenting in a different language. The language of the meeting was English but there were a lot of researchers from Japan and many other countries. It made me feel like I should never feel nervous to give another oral presentation – at least I get to speak in my native language!

You presented a poster at the meeting. What was your poster about and what types of feedback did you receive? 

My poster was about ammonia oxidation, one step in the sequence of reactions used to remove nitrogen from waste water. I studied a type of bacteria, called Nitrosomonas europaea, and how its ability to oxidize ammonia is inhibited by a chemical compound called phenol. I found that there was less inhibition of ammonia oxidation when the cells were grown in a dense cluster of cells called a biofilm, than when they were grown as free-floating, individual cells. 

My research is part of a larger project at OSU that is trying to develop a biosensor, a microbial cell that would produce a fluorescent or other type of signal, when contaminants are encountered in waste water. The overall goal of the project is to increase the efficiency of waste water treatment plants with early detection of toxic contaminants. The people who visited my poster showed a lot of interest in the idea of a biosensor and several shared ideas of different techniques for labeling the microorganism. I also had a few researchers stop by my poster who had a lot of expertise with one of the research methods I used, qPCR. They gave me feedback that will help me interpret my results.

What new research areas did you see and what sessions did you particularly enjoy?

I saw a lot of interesting presentations on new technologies, such as molecular methods, drilling techniques and new microscopy techniques, which are allowing researchers to look at cells in extreme environments. It is difficult to study organisms that are living at great depths underground or in other remote locations. There was a lot of discussion about ways to take samples in heterogeneous subsurface environments, and of methods to study the interactions and activities of cells in extreme conditions.

I am interested in groundwater remediation so I also enjoyed the aquifer sessions, which focused on microbe interactions with both organic and metal contaminants. The presenters in these sessions were from many different countries and they were chaired by researchers from Japan and Germany. There were also presentations from researchers at the US Geological Survey and the Joint Genome Institute, and it was great to hear about some of the applied research in government labs that focuses on groundwater remediation and genomics of subsurface communities. Other interesting research that was presented focused on CO2 sequestration, which related to the recent Fall seminar series here at OSU on geologic carbon sequestration.

For more information about the meeting or Ellen's research, contact Ellen at