Grad Student Montgomery Explores How Ocean Chemistry Affects Microbes

Andy onboard the R/V Endeavor’s aft deck in summer 2015. He earned the nickname “Plan-B” after joining the crew last minute to replace an ill researcher and, while there, discovered his passion for ECOGIG’s research and made it the focus of his graduate work. (Photo credit: Kurt Rethorn)

Andy onboard the R/V Endeavor’s aft deck in summer 2015. He earned the nickname “Plan-B” after joining the crew last minute to replace an ill researcher and, while there, discovered his passion for ECOGIG’s research and made it the focus of his graduate work. (Photo credit: Kurt Rethorn)

Researchers aboard the R/V Endeavor recover the CTD Niskin Rosette in summer 2015. (Photo credit: Andy Montgomery)

Researchers aboard the R/V Endeavor recover the CTD Niskin Rosette in summer 2015. (Photo credit: Andy Montgomery)

(L-R) Guang-Chao Zhuang, Andy, and Cathrine Shepard share a joke while processing water column geochemistry samples in the main lab of the R/V Endeavor, summer 2017. (Photo provided by ECOGIG)

(L-R) Guang-Chao Zhuang, Andy, and Cathrine Shepard share a joke while processing water column geochemistry samples in the main lab of the R/V Endeavor, summer 2017. (Photo provided by ECOGIG)

Natural seeps are abundant in the Gulf of Mexico and help create a chemically unique habitat where microbial populations can flourish. Andy Montgomery is researching the relationship between marine microbes and ocean chemistry and how chemical shifts affect the role microorganisms play in biogeochemical cycling, a common pathway for chemicals and organic matter to move through the ocean. His goal is to push the microbes to their limits to determine what they are capable of under extremely stressful conditions to understand how major chemical disturbances, such as oil spills, affect microbial populations and processes.

Andy is a Ph.D. student with the University of Georgia’s Department of Marine Sciences and a GoMRI Scholar with the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf-2 (ECOGIG-2) consortium.

His Path

Andy’s grandfathers inspired his love for life and science when he was a child. One grandfather, who lives on a lake, taught him that life is like fishing: the more lines you have in the water, the more adventures you will enjoy. His other grandfather, a biology professor, taught him to appreciate life’s ever-changing forms. These lessons instilled in Andy a desire to understand how life’s components are intertwined and inspired a passion to expand his mind through science and life experiences.

Andy began his graduate career in the University of Georgia’s Integrative Life Science program, an interdisciplinary program that covers many disciplines, including marine sciences, infectious diseases, and biochemistry. The program allowed Andy to experience different labs on campus while he searched for a research focus. While working with Dr. Mandy Joye, her research about environmental influences on marine microbes fascinated him and he wanted to take part in that opportunity. While working in a non-GoMRI position in Joye’s lab, Andy was asked to fill in for an ill researcher aboard an ECOGIG research cruise. 

“It was my first chance to go out to sea, and I immediately fell in love with it,” said Andy. “We spent a month on the R/V Endeavor collecting samples in the Gulf of Mexico. I got to see firsthand how amazingly beautiful and fragile our oceans are. With my newfound enthusiasm for going out to sea and working in the Gulf, Mandy and I agreed that ECOGIG research would be a perfect fit for my graduate work.”

His Work

Andy investigates microbes’ response to chemical changes in their environment from two angles. First, he wants to understand how the microbial population responds to major environmental shifts such as oil spills and how the population changes over time after its initial response. He is particularly interested in determining if microbial populations return to pre-event levels or if they experience permanent changes. Second, he wants to determine how microbial processes related to carbon cycling react to environmental changes.

Andy collects Gulf water samples and immediately measures the rates of certain microbial processes (such as carbon degradation or assimilation) to establish their baseline activity. He then supplements the samples with a certain chemical compound, such as methane, oil, or nutrients, that he hypothesizes will affect the organisms. He measures changes in the rates of the microbial processes relative to baseline observations and analyzes genomic data using stable isotope probing and next-generation sequencing. These observations help him determine which microbial populations the chemicals are enriching or inhibiting and if and how microbial processes are altered. His uses these findings to better understand how these microbes may react to similar exposures in the natural environment.

“After the spill, there was a major increase in carbon uptake and usage because organic matter containing carbon was readily available to microorganisms,” explained Andy. “Understanding which geochemical factors control these processes, how that correlates to the microbial population, and how the population changes over time will help us prepare for future oil spills and other disasters.”

His Learning

Andy’s experiences working in Joye’s lab have helped him understand how important passion is to scientific research. The lab members’ contagious excitement and desire to learn and educate others about the natural world inspire him to give back to society. “The fervor exhibited through their work is unmistakable, and they never stop working to better understand the world we live in,” explained Andy. “I hope this feeling continues to grow and that I am able to leave a positive lasting impact on this Earth through my career.”

His Future

Andy discovered the importance of educating society on scientific issues through teaching undergraduate labs and participating in ECOGIG outreach events such as the Ocean Discovery Zone and Science at the Stadium. He hopes to create future exciting opportunities for others to learn about emerging scientific ideas and findings.

He tells students considering a scientific career to get involved as early and often as they can. “I had the opportunity to do research my freshman year of college. I got hands-on experience from day one and learned a lot of basic lab techniques early on, which greatly helped me advance my skills and knowledge,” he said. “Even if you can’t immediately join a lab, there are many university research courses, citizen science opportunities, or outreach programs to get involved in.”

Praise for Andy

Joye said that during his time in her lab, Andy grew into a thoughtful, meticulous scientist and a passionate and dedicated instructor. She described him as a natural leader with outstanding character, “Andy sets an exceptional example and works tirelessly on his own projects while always being available to give others a hand as needed. He works to not only meet but also exceed expectations and holds himself to a high standard. It is such a pleasure and honor to mentor someone like Andy.”

The GoMRI community embraces bright and dedicated students like Andy Montgomery and their important contributions. The GoMRI Scholars Program recognizes graduate students whose work focuses on GoMRI-funded projects and builds community for the next generation of ocean science professionals. Visit the ECOGIG website to learn more about their work.

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The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

© Copyright 2010-2018 Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) – All Rights Reserved. Redistribution is encouraged with acknowledgement to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI). Please credit images and/or videos as done in each article. Questions? Contact web-content editor Nilde “Maggie” Dannreuther, Northern Gulf Institute, Mississippi State University (maggied@ngi.msstate.edu).