Many microbiologists remember your work involving the cultivation of 30-million-year-old bacteria taken from an ancient bee entombed in amber. What got you interested in that area?
I'm very interested in understanding how microorganisms can survive for long periods of time - that's what makes them so unique among all other organisms on the planet. Amber, which I have found to be a very good preservative, could maintain organisms alive for a very long time. Once I looked at an electron micrograph that Dr. George Poinar had shown me of the gut of a bee. I saw what looked like living endospores, so it seemed to be worth a chance, and that was the beginning of those experiments.
Since your work with these bacterial relics, you've moved on to other areas, including work sequencing the genome of Lactobacillus acidophilus. What's your current focus there?
At that time it wasn't like it is now - now you can do a genome for $7,000 in a week - it was a real challenge. I took on the task because I wanted to train students in the area of bioinformatics. I wanted to have my students participate in a genome project, starting from obtaining the organism, extracting its DNA, cloning it, sequencing it, and putting it all together. Ours was a very small team. It took us a long time, but it was really an attempt to train students in an up-and-coming area.
Are you involved in a lot of undergraduate laboratory teaching?
I have been all my life. Cal Poly is primarily an undergraduate institution. Their motto is "learn by doing." That becomes a real challenge in project management when you have undergraduate students do the research that graduate students would normally do, because you have to ensure that there is some continuity in it.
You're the Chair of the Academy's Committee on Diversity. What are your plans for the committee?
The goal of the committee is to have the same ethnic distribution in the Academy as there is among the Ph.D.s in the American Society for Microbiology. I think of special interest are Hispanics and women. We want to achieve this goal by showcasing their scientific abilities; sometimes they don't get noticed. One of the things we are trying is to sponsor a symposium every year that features representative minority speakers. That's my primary and main goal: to achieve some sort of parity.
What do you think is the most understudied microbial system?
I can think of two systems: caves and the oceans. Caves are my new project. I'm doing some sampling in caves in Mexico. Microbial communities of caves can help us understand terrestrial biology. I know there's some interest in the oceans, but if you look at ASM members, the vast majority of us are in medical microbiology, and that covers a very small cross section of microorganisms on this planet. I think that the oceans have extraordinary diversity.
What is your favorite microbe? Why?
My favorite microbe is more of a group: the Actinobacteria. They have such a diverse genome and they are capable of surviving in adverse conditions and low nutrient conditions. They also have tremendous potential in industry. They are remarkable in their physiology and their survival prowess.
What advice would you give students about life as an academic microbiologist?
That I guess from my perspective, I'd say "never accept defeat." Whatever you want, you can reach. However, sometimes it requires a great deal of work and stress. The things that are easy have already been done. The things that are left to do are hard, so you've got to work at it.
What is something about you that most people don't know?
I love music. My family is full of musicians. I am absolutely awful when it comes to music, but if I had to live my life over again, I would do it as a musician rather than a scientist.