My research helps improve tools that monitor microscopic ocean plants (phytoplankton) remotely. Just like land is covered with plants once the right mix of soil and light are present, so too is the ocean’s surface covered in phytoplankton when the conditions are right. These phytoplankton are the base of the ocean’s food chain. Cyanobacteria are the tiniest phytoplankton found everywhere on the surface of the ocean, and their colors can be detected by satellites. Because the ocean is very large, satellite imaging technology is important for understanding the ocean as a whole system. My work investigates ways to identify and quantify cyanobacteria using their colors, and understands what these colors signify about the health of the cells. This is significant because cyanobacteria are heavily dependent on their environment, and it is important for us to understand how changes to the environment today will affect the chain of marine life globally in the future.
As a doctoral researcher, I currently conduct lab experiments with cyanobacteria to discover how their colored pigments acclimate and adapt to light and iron conditions that vary across the ocean. Iron is an essential element for growth and photosynthesis in cyanobacteria. The source of iron to the ocean is land, resulting in a gradient of high iron at the coasts to very low iron in the open ocean, which influences where and how cyanobacteria are able to grow. Understanding how these factors affect colored pigments in cyanobacteria can help us more accurately interpret regional and global images of ocean color.