Spell check seems to think Geomicrobiology isn’t a real thing. But let me tell you, after spending six weeks totally immersed in helping research little microbes interacting with different minerals, it’s a real thing. This FWT, I was in Germany interning with the Geomicrobiology department at the University of Tuebingen, each week working with a different postdoc or PhD candidate. I also attended weekly seminars in the geosciences and took a few classes studying iron oxides (all in English).
Although I wasn’t conducting my own primary research in Geomicrobiology, I learned a ton working with real-life scientists. Depending on the day and project, I regularly made chemical solutions for different media, worked in a nitrogen glovebox to prepare and conduct anoxic experiments, and used many different electrodes to test redox potential of different samples. I learned how to use some really neat instruments, like the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) along with X-ray Diffraction (XRD) and Energy Dispersive X-ray (EDX) imaging, Mössbauer Spectroscopy, and microscopes that detect fluorescence. The SEM uses electron diffraction to get ridiculously cool images on a very small scale—sometimes 1 nm!; the XRD and EDX probes on the SEM test for crystal structures and the chemical composition of specific spots on samples. I was fortunate enough to be able to conduct basic tests and imaging on my own using these devices—with supervision, of course.
I not only picked up some new hardware skills, but also learned so much about cutting-edge research on topics that really interest me. For example, one week I was shadowing a PhD candidate studying biochar, charcoal used as a soil additive in compost, as a means to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by holding it in the wooden structures of the biochar pieces. In particular, he was studying the nitrogen cycle and how microcosms living in the biochar — made from sewage slush and beach wood in different kilns—might reduce methane and nitrous oxide coming from the atmosphere, compost, and other agricultural processes. Another week, I worked with a new postdoc on microbially meditated reactions in the biogeochemical iron cycle. We took a field trip to collect soil core samples and water from a lake in southern Germany to use as media to test the growth of iron oxidizing bacteria. All of her work was anoxic to control for the chemical oxidization of ferrous iron. I also spent one week with a geology PhD student who is researching the effects that microbes had on Banded Iron Formations of the Precambrian Era and the “Great Oxidation Event”, which oxidized much of the ferrous iron in the environment.
Overall, I’d say this was the most informative and educational experience I’ve had in science yet. I now can question certain scientific research and how it was conducted, as well as read science papers and visualize what the author is saying. I even became more certain of my studies in geology and it gave me ideas for my senior work in the future!