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The Carletonian

Rika Anderson ’06 returns to Carleton to teach biology

<rs since Rika Anderson ’06 graduated from Carleton, she has done research on microbes in hot springs in Yellowstone, participated in a research cruise in the South Pacific, researched the origin of life in Sweden, worked in a space materials lab, received a Ph.D. in Oceanography and Astrobiology from the University of Washington, and descended to the seafloor in a submarine in order to collect microbial samples from deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

Now, ten years later, she is returning to Carleton as an Assistant Professor of Biology. She is currently teaching a class called Genomics and Bioinformatics, and in the spring she will co-teach the course Biology 126 with Matt Rand, her former professor.

Anderson originally came to Carleton with the intention of majoring in physics. She wanted to be an astronomer-cosmologist and study string theory and the origins of the universe. She took other science classes as well, including biology, which she would go on to major in, and fell in love with oceanography, especially after doing Sea Semester.

“I kind of came to realize over time that I actually really enjoy being outside, that I like doing field work…On the one hand I’m interested in string theory and cosmology and the origins of the universe, but I’m also really interested in the origin of life itself on our planet. That kind of took me from physics more into the biology side of things and the oceanography side of things,” Anderson said.

After graduating from Carleton, Anderson spent her year before graduate school doing many things, which included: working in a Swedish lab studying what selective pressures led to the divergence of the three domains of life in order to better understand the origins of life, embarking on a research cruise in the South Pacific getting hands-on oceanography experience, and worked in a space materials lab. In her graduate school career at the University of Washington, Anderson studied Astrobiology and Oceanography.

According to Anderson, “Astrobiology is the study of life in a universal context… People who study astrobiology try to understand how life first arose, how it then spread across the planet, how it affects our planet… and then we take that information and apply it to the search for life on other worlds.”

As an astrobiologist, Anderson works with astronomers, geologists, atmospheric scientists, oceanographers, chemists and biologists. “Because it’s so interdisciplinary I never get bored, and I learn new things all the time from my colleagues,” Anderson said.

Anderson’s dissertation was focused on understanding how microbes adapt and survive in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and in particular how they interact with viruses that live there.
“Most people are surprised to hear that there are viruses living on the seafloor, but it turns out viruses are everywhere. My favorite quote is: ‘If you take all the viruses in our world’s oceans and you line them up end-to-end, they would reach across the Milky Way Galaxy 100 times.’”

Anderson observed that some of these viruses enter a microbe and, instead of killing it, hide out inside the microbe and manipulate it. Sometimes these viruses can actually help microbes survive in these extreme conditions, for example by providing a gene that might allow the microbe to access a new energy source.

How does this type of research help Anderson in her quest to understand the origins of and early evolution of life?

“We think deep-sea hydrothermal vents were very important for the origin of life…By understanding how microbes evolve and adapt now, I’m hoping that we can apply that to understanding how life may have evolved and adapted four and a half billion years ago,” Anderson said.

Some of her colleagues study possible practical applications of the microbes. One of her colleagues cultures microbes collected from the seafloor with the hope that the compounds they produce could be useful in pharmaceuticals. However, Anderson is “much more interested in these fundamental questions of where do we come from, and how, and why, and tracing our roots.”

Somehow these microbes have to be collected from the sea floor, and twice, Anderson has gone down to get them. The submarine she used, called Alvin, was used to first explore the wreck of the Titanic, as well as first discovering these deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

“The scariest part is when you’re dangling above the water and you’re looking down and you’re like, ‘Oh, crap, what did I just get myself into,’” Anderson said.

It takes about an hour to descend the 1,500 or 2,000 meters below the surface of the ocean where her dives took place (a mile is about 1600 meters). Each dive includes two researchers and a pilot packed together in very tight quarters. On the way down, according to Anderson, they turned off all the lights in order to conserve power (while listening to the Shrek soundtrack) and looked out of three small windows at the firework-like bioluminescent organisms disturbed by their presence.

“You land on the ocean floor and turn the lights on, and it looks like a total moonscape, like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The first time I dove I was in an active volcano, and it had erupted just a few years before, and so you can see the lava, you can imagine lava erupting and then immediately being cooled by the ocean floor. It’s like this pillowed, bizarre-looking landscape of freshly erupted lava all around us,” Anderson said.

Once on the seafloor, the pilot navigates to the coordinates of the sample sites, while being careful to avoid crashing into the chimneys of superheated water that are shooting out of the sea floor. The water that shoots out of these vents, home of the microbes Anderson studies, can reach temperatures of up to 400 degrees Celsius, or four times the boiling point of water. The researchers use two arms that are attached to the front of Alvin to capture hot water from the vents and filter out the microbes to study later. Sometimes Anderson and her co-divers would spend an hour or two sampling at a single vent.

These volcanoes and hydrothermal vents are usually found along the edges of tectonic plates. Anderson’s study site was the Juan de Fuca plate about 200 miles off the coast of Washington and Oregon, which takes about a day to reach by boat.

However, not all of Anderson’s research takes place on the seafloor. As part of her postdoctoral work, which was funded by NASA, she wanted to better understand how microbes evolve, which led her to conduct research with a colleague who studies microbial life in Yellowstone’s hot springs.

Collecting samples from hot springs is no easy task, because a crust can form over the springs that looks like solid ground but is actually highly unstable. The researchers are accompanied by geologists who know the area well and lead them in a single file line, telling them exactly where to step, in order to avoid punching through the crust.

“It’s actually scarier, I think, to sample at Yellowstone than it is to sample at the bottom of the ocean,” Anderson said. Other challenges on land include bison and grizzlies.

While she may not currently be able to collect samples from Yellowstone or underwater volcanoes, Anderson is taking advantage of a different resource here at Carleton: Lyman Lakes. Anderson was planning to take her class out to punch through the lakes with an ice auger in order to collect samples from below, something she last did as a student at Carleton.

The class, Genomics and Bioinformatics, focuses on an area of biology that is becoming increasingly important: how to use computational analysis to analyze “big data.”

“Biology has changed so much in the past ten years and it’s undergoing a revolution in terms of DNA sequencing. Engineers have been coming up with ways to sequence huge amounts of DNA really fast, really cheap, and so suddenly biologists are left with this problem of we have tons and tons of data, what do we do with it? How do we analyze it? How do we even begin to start asking questions about it? It’s a whole new skillset we’ve had to develop,” Anderson said. Her course is designed to give students an introduction to those skills.

When asked how Carleton has changed since she was a student here, Anderson said that she is encouraged by the focus on environmentalism. As a student, Anderson was very involved in environmental activism on campus, and was President of SOPE and the student liaison on the Environmental Advisory Committee. She participated in campaigns for a second wind turbine, the creation of a sustainability coordinator position, and LEED-certified buildings, and she helped initiate a composting system in all of the student houses (and was personally responsible for emptying the bins).

When she came back for reunion five years ago, Anderson was pleased to see that sustainability felt more ingrained in the college’s mission.

“That’s been really encouraging to see, and I’m sure students have continued to advocate for those things and I think the college itself has been coming around and understanding that that’s an important tool for recruitment, too. It’s nice to feel like we were part of that in some small way,” Anderson said.

For someone whose “goal was always to be a small liberal arts college professor,” Anderson seems to have found a good fit, with the added bonus of already being very familiar with the school.
“I know what Carleton students are like, I know what students are dealing with…I kind of understand the dynamic of what it’s like to be a student here, and I think that helps when I’m teaching…I feel like I’ve come back home in a way,” Anderson said.

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