Through the Ocean Science & Engineering program, Ph.D. student Claire Elbon kicked off her time at Georgia Tech last spring. As the pandemic emerged, Elbon was welcomed into Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS) community — virtually! — and has been able to conduct research and make fascinating discoveries over the past two semesters. Working with Jennifer Glass, an associate professor in EAS, Elbon’s research studies the activities of tiny microbes to help answer big questions about climate change and biogeochemical cycles.
1) Where are you from, and what is your past educational experience?
I am originally from Lexington, Kentucky, but spent the majority of my childhood in Nashville, Tennessee, which is where my parents currently live. I did my undergrad in microbiology at University of Tennessee, Knoxville from fall of 2017 to spring of 2020. I also was able to study abroad in Nova Scotia at Dalhousie University and participate in a field research-based oceanography course.
2) What is the nature of the research you are involved in?
I work with Jen Glass on the evolution of respiration in microbial organisms. In particular, I am looking at genetic indications of microbial evolution with regards to anoxic-hypoxic-oxic conditions on Earth. I am also working with Dr. Glass on studying microbial organisms that live in oxygen-minimum zones in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Peru. Due to current climate change, oxygen-minimum zones are becoming larger and more widespread throughout the ocean. These microbial organisms also face many challenges regarding oxygen availability required for respiration. I am looking to see “who” these organisms are and how they survive/thrive in these conditions.
3) What are the possible long-term impacts of your research?
Processes of microbial metabolism drive major biogeochemical cycles on our Earth. (i.e. They influence our Earth’s climate and can amplify or lessen the effects of global warming.) However, there are still many unknowns regarding who these organisms are, what types of respiration they perform, where they are found on Earth, and how they respond to changing availability of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, etc. In my research, I hope to find answers to these questions to better understand microbial influences of global climate change, and vice versa. A greater understanding of biotic influence on our Earth can help us to better understand past and current global climate change, and even lead to a more comprehensive understanding of how the Earth evolved.
4) What is the most fulfilling part of doing research?
The most fulfilling part of research, for myself, is that I get to learn something new every day. You are definitely never bored when you are researching! This has been one of the things that has helped me to get through the pandemic so far. Understandably, the expectations and goals I had for my first year at Tech as a Ph.D. student were completely changed. However, my P.I. (principal investigator), fellow grad students, and many others, have helped me tremendously in re-evaluating what it means to be a researcher. I feel so lucky in that I get to spend my day immersed in the world of microbes and the ocean.
5) How would you describe the research atmosphere at Georgia Tech?
On that note, the research atmosphere at Tech is an extremely welcoming community. I started grad school at Tech during Covid-19, and thus have only “met” many members of the research community virtually. Research interests are extremely varied throughout the College of Sciences, but there is still a strong sense of community and mutual understanding of the struggles of being a grad student and researcher. I am very much looking forward to meeting fellow researchers in-person!
6) What are your post-graduation plans and how does your degree play into those plans?
Right now, graduation seems a long way off, but my post-graduation plans are to stay in academia in one way or another. I hope to continue research in the field of microbiology and biogeochemical cycling in the ocean. It’s an incredibly exciting and increasingly more relevant field with many opportunities for discovery and collaboration.
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