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Crusty Scientist Dishes Dirt on Sonoran Soil

By Jake Harris
Illustrated by Sabine Deviche

show/hide words to know

  • Bore: to cut into a material with a turning and twisting movement.
  • Characteristic: a quality that make something similar or different than other things. All birds have wings which are common a characteristic.
  • Chemistry: the area of science that studies changes in atoms or molecules... more
  • Cyanobacteria: a kind of bacteria that gets its energy through photosynthesis... more
  • Environment: the area (environment) where living things or groups of living things normally live. Also called the natural environment... more
  • Geology: the area of science that studies Earth's rocks and its history... more
  • Immense: very large, having great size.
  • Microbe: a living thing so tiny that you would need a microscope to see it... more

Professor Ferran Garcia-Pichel sweats the small stuff. The really, really small stuff to be exact. The easygoing Arizona State University-based microbiologist loves to look beyond the surface to explain what is happening in the tiny world of microbes.

green bacteria"We're interested in studying the life and consequences of microbes in a natural environment. We essentially are environmental scientists that look beyond what most can see which are plants and animals," he said.

Tiny microbes with huge impact

The world of microbes is often overlooked by scientists, but their effects should not be underestimated, he said.

"We look at the immense populations of microbes that drive most environments' global cycling of the elements, but they're unseen (by others) because they're too small," he said.

But his research often goes beyond microbiology and biology. Through partnerships with colleagues near and far, Professor Garcia-Pichel's research allows his team to research subjects related to, but separate from biology like geology and chemistry.

"Essentially it's the search for advancement and knowledge. That's what really provides the drive and the kick for what we do," he said.

fieldwork

Recent experiments have studied the effects of microbes like cyanobacteria in ocean environments. His research also examines the characteristics of microbes in desert environments. Microbes can do incredible things like bore through rocks.

Some of what microbes do is still to be explained, but Professor Garcia Pichel's team continues work to uncover the science behind them.

Not just science

Another benefit to being a biologist is the opportunity to help students and researches on his teams. "I find it's a lot of fun to train people and to mentor people," he said. I enjoy that and I enjoy seeing people grow into the field."

Watching young researchers grow is just one rewarding aspect of his work. Each day, Professor Garcia-Pichel finds something new to love about his job.

"I can think of very few places where every day is completely different from the previous day," he said. "I don't think you can pay for that with money. Every day is an experience, every day is a challenge, every day there is something new."

walking in desertThe good, the bad, and the challenges

When asked what is his favorite part of being a biologist he is quick to say that it is working out in the field and doing experiments, which is only 15 to 20 percent of the time. "Most of the research is done in the lab," he adds.

His job, he said, is a mixed bag, but that's the way he likes it. With each day comes new and exciting problems to solve. "There are a lot of ups and downs, and there are a lot of challenges, but it's always fun," he said.

 


This section of Ask A Biologist was funded by NSF Grant Award number 020671.

Ferran Garcia-Pichel

Microbiologist Ferran Garcia-Pichel studies the microscopic world just below the desert surface.

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Ferran Garcia-Pichel

Microbiologist Ferran Garcia-Pichel studies the microscopic world just below the desert surface.

Read this story in: Español |

Share to Google Classroom

Be part of Ask A Biologist

by volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteer page to get the process started.