Greetings, Classroom Connectors! Today’s interview is with my good friend Dr. Peter Girguis from Harvard University. Pete is super interested in understanding the effects of pressure on how the weirdo deep subsurface microbes make a living. If you have any questions you would like to ask Pete about studying the life and times of tiny microscopic beings, or about life under pressure, please let me know. – Beth
Peter Girguis is a jolly ol’ professor from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he has been living for the past few years with his family. Pete spent the early part of his scientific career over on the west coast, though – he’s from California. Pete originally went to school to study music and pre-med, but then realized he was happiest following his passion of studying the oceans and switched topics. He studied at UCLA in Los Angeles, then worked on his Ph.D. in beautiful Santa Barbara at UCSB, and then spent a few years as a scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
After spending a very short time with Pete, you quickly realize that he loves to build stuff. As scientists working together on this ship, Pete can most often be found in a corner somewhere tinkering with something, like the high pressure incubation vessels he will use on this cruise to study microbes living at high pressures and cold temperatures. As another example, he told me a story about how he and his friends built a zip line between buildings on their school’s campus when they were students, so that they could zip by during graduation day. Sounds pretty fun, right? He said that the experience was a great tool for realizing how useful math is. When he and his friends first attached the rope between the buildings, they didn’t account for the stretch in the rope when weight would be applied to it, so their first attempt to zip down the line found them sitting on the ground with a sagging rope. With a little bit of geometry and some tests on the stretchiness of the rope, they soon were back in action.
Pete loves being a scientist because it is a job that allows him to think “wouldn’t it be so cool if we could try this?” and then come up with different ways to do that cool thing. For example, Pete and his group have spent the past few years building a really neat underwater instrument (called an In Situ Mass Spectrometer) that can be mounted onto the ROV Jason-II to ‘sniff’ gases dissolved in water. It is important for scientists to know the concentration of gases way down at the bottom of the ocean because some of them are important food sources for the weird microbes living down there. And it isn’t really easy to just collect a sample and then bring it to the surface to measure the gases, because the change in pressure between the bottom of the ocean and the surface will cause gases to come out of solution and float away. After some iterations and trials on different cruises and in different environments, his team now has a robust system that provides gas data that no other instrument can. As Pete says, “You get to actually take an idea you have and see if it works. And if it doesn’t work, it’s OK, because that just means you learned how not to do something.”