Sunday, May 5, 2013

Marine Microbiology, Twitter Friends, and Deep Sea Coffee Cups

I have long been interested primarily in bacteria that could care less about human beings, even merely as a surface.  And let's face it:  such organisms make up far more than 99% of microbial life on this planet.  One related subject that has always fascinated me is marine microbiology (here is a great issue of Nature Reviews in Microbiology focusing on this topic), probably because of my continuing interest in bioluminescent bacteria (remember that, with one known exception, all bioluminescent bacteria thus far discovered are marine...which is pretty remarkable).  And, embracing our inner Nerd, luminous bacteria are beyond cool:

Speaking of one's Inner Nerd, who can resist?  Not me.

 In my microbiology course, I try to introduce students to just a tiny taste of marine microbiology, plating out dilutions of student-selected marine water samples to demonstrate the visual diversity of types of microbes present.  Two phenotypes seem to excite students:   bacterial bioluminescence, for obvious reasons,  and bacteria that degrade agar due to the production of agarase (the dimples on the surface of the agar are due to enzymes degrading the polymer).

So yes, indeed: marine microbiology is fascinating.

As I began to explore Twitter to learn how social media intersected with science, I developed "electronic friends" with fascinating research interests.  One such friend is Christina Kellogg, from the US Geological Survey Coastal and Marine Science Center in St. Petersberg, Florida.  I first met the inimitable CK (don't get her started on 1980s "hair bands") in real life at the General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in 2012.  Because she currently does research studying the microbiota associated with deepwater corals, I mentioned a long standing interest of mine:  shrinking coffee cups.

When objects made of styrofoam (which is "foamed polystyrene") are taken to great depths---perhaps on a submersible---the air is forced out and shrinkage occurs...often to 1/8th the original size of the object.  This is a very, very popular hobby for marine biologists to have, and I have always been a little jealous.  I sort of wanted such an item for my collection of "odd objects."  I mentioned this to CK offhandedly.

A few months later, a small package appeared in my departmental mailbox.  Chris had not forgotten!

Here is the shrunken cup with a standard cup (which was the size of the styrofoam cup originally) for comparison:

CK had clearly spent some time on the decoration, the scale bar inside (which you cannot see in these photographs), and so forth.  I was very touched and quite grateful. As a result, Chris Kellogg drinks free whenever I see her at a scientific meeting.  Least I can do, for being so kindly remembered.

Yes, it is a pretty wonderful object that now has a place of honor on my desk, which has become my own version of a "Cabinet of Curiosities" or Wunderkammer!  I think that "cool" objects like this help drive home how fascinating science can be---think of it as object-oriented propagandizing of students!  And my current research students find the shrunken cup fascinating.  Like Katie!

To me, it is always interesting to learn about the connections between people an interests.  My postdoctoral fascination with bioluminescent bacteria.  My interest in social media.  A friend with a common interest in marine microbiology.  And a wonderful memento!  Thank you, Chris!  I hope to see you at ASM this year.

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I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!