by: Aditi Risbud


David Karl, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Microbial Oceanography and co-director of the Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology at the University of Hawaii, and an investigator through the Moore Foundation’s Marine Microbiology initiative.

Dave's research efforts revolve around energy and matter transformations ranging from solar energy capture to the major element cycles, especially carbon and phosphorus. He has developed and employed analytical techniques to study ecological and biogeochemical processes in the ocean. Dave and his team have helped to build the basic understanding of microbial and biogeochemical processes at Station ALOHA, an open ocean field site dedicated to understanding the greater North Pacific Ocean.

What inspired you to become a scientist?
When I was very young, I always wanted to be out-of-doors, even in harsh Buffalo, New York winters. I eventually graduated from playing with insects in my mother’s flower garden to hikes in the woods and long family camping excursions by the water. My mother – one of the great mentors in my life – worked at the local public library and brought home all the books she could find on aquatic biology, ecology and the environment, but none inspired me more than Arthur C. Clarke’s forward-looking book, The Challenge of the Sea

At the age of ten, I was captivated by the great potential for future scientific discovery and knew right then and there that I wanted to be an oceanographer … whatever that was or meant. However, living in land-locked Buffalo, polluted Lake Erie was my "ocean." In college, I was very concerned about the poor state of the environment, and lived by the slogan made famous by Eldridge Cleaver, "If you are not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem." I was also part of the hippie movement and attended Woodstock in 1969.

After college, I taught high school algebra and general science at an inner city vocational school in Buffalo and pondered my future. I had previously spent holidays in Florida and was an avid scuba diver, so I decided to apply for graduate school at Florida State University and the rest as they say, is history. It is still hard to believe that I get paid to do what I love, and I can’t imagine having a real job!

What topics/areas/problems in science are you most interested in solving?
When a neighbor or stranger in a supermarket or restaurant asks me "what do you do?" I often take a step back and ponder this interesting and important question. As citizens of planet Earth, we all have a niche, something to contribute to the general good. I consider myself to be a scientist and educator, someone who seeks and disseminates knowledge about the sea around us. 

Ultimately, I am interested in how organisms – including humans – fit into the natural world, how energy from the sun drives all plant and animal communities and how energy transformations intersect with and sustain the cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. More recently, my interests have turned to resource management in a broad sense, whether it’s nutrient limitation in marine plankton or the depletion of non-renewal resources used to sustain the global human economy. Lessons from marine microorganisms might be used to inform humankind or at least to warn us about our own susceptibility and limitations. 

I would also like to become more involved in helping to create a science-literate electorate so that future political and economic decisions can be fact-based. I believe that all scientists have a social responsibility to improve the relationships between the natural and human-built worlds that we inhabit.

How do your colleagues, mentors, students/postdocs, others help you achieve your goals?
During my first semester at Florida State, I met Paul LaRock, who introduced me to marine microbes, took me on my first oceanographic research expedition to the Cariaco Trench off the coast of South America and otherwise took me under his wing. He was a great teacher and mentor, and inspired me to become a microbial oceanographer. He set a very high bar, especially for a mediocre student like me, but I was up to the “challenge of the sea” and I have worked hard until this day.

When I was young, I was always involved in team sports, especially baseball, and this taught me a lesson about teamwork that has served me well later in life. Science is a team sport, and I have one of the best teams ever assembled, in my humble opinion. My team, comprised of students, staff, postdocs, colleagues and administrators, makes progress on any large complex mission.

Each team member brings some unique skill or knowledge base to help solve problems that would be well beyond the capability of any one individual or even small group. Besides, it is much more fun and rewarding to work together, and to share the thrill of scientific discovery and achievement.

What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
Being a member of a team helps immensely; one would never purposely let a team mate down. I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity to work in science, and to get paid for what I love to do. When I was younger I held many different, mostly summer jobs, to help pay for my college education, motorcycle and other life expenses. Many of these jobs included menial and physical labor, poor working conditions, structured work environments with close supervision and punch clocks, and were otherwise quite unpleasant. I recall thinking, "I can’t imagine doing this for the rest of my life!" I consider my education and employment to be a gift, and I work hard to keep from losing or wasting this unique opportunity to be a scientist. 

What are your greatest limitations/challenges as a scientist?
I am not that old, but neither am I as young as I used to be, or wish to be. The arrow of time is always moving forward and at some point, age may become a limiting factor, but not yet! One major challenge in all fields of science, but especially in microbial oceanography, is the rapid pace of new discovery and the increasingly large volume of relevant scientific literature. It is nearly overwhelming to keep up with the field, to remain at or near the cutting edge, and to sustain state-of-the-art research facilities and skilled technical personnel. 

More broadly, I suppose the major challenge is to establish a comprehensive understanding of the sea around us, one that includes information from the genomic basis for life to ocean basin scale ecosystem processes. The enormous scope and scale of the global ocean and our current limitations in sampling it will always remain as the primary challenge of the sea.

Learn more about Dave Karl’s research here.

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