Geobiologist Victoria Orphan `94, Ph.D. `01 earns 2016 MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Grant
By Marge Perko
Dr. Victoria Orphan `94, Ph.D. `01 received the best kind of surprise from an early morning phone call this past fall. “I assumed it was a robocall or a political campaign call,” she said. “I was inclined not to answer! Luckily, my partner did.”
A representative from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation conveyed the happy news: Orphan had earned the $625,000 “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in recognition of her research into deep-sea microorganisms.
“Orphan skillfully combines techniques from molecular biology and mass spectrometry into novel methods that enable the capture and analysis of the activities of individual microbial cells, as well as the relationships among different microbes, in their natural environments.”
-- From Meet the Class of 2016 on the MacArthur Foundation website
She joins four UC alums honored by the Foundation for “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.”
“You literally have no idea that you are nominated for the fellowship,” said Orphan, who serves as the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. “It is truly a wonderful surprise.”
Orphan discovered her fascination for microorganisms during her undergraduate years at UC Santa Barbara. Born and raised in San Diego, she had a passion for oceanography and marine science – an area of study she pursued during her first years at UCSB.
“At UC Santa Barbara, if you are motivated and you are willing to seek out the opportunities, they are there for you,” she said. “You don’t have to be passive with your undergraduate degree at UCSB. If you show an interest, you can get involved in a hands-on program. I worked at the Marine Science Institute, at the touch tanks, and did a couple of research cruises, explored the salt marsh ecosystem and tagged fish. In the beginning, I was more interested in macroecology.”
Then, she took her first course with metagenomics pioneer Dr. Edward DeLong, a marine microbiologist best known for his discovery of how bacteria use the protein rhodopsin to convert sunlight into biochemical energy in marine ecosystems.
“It just totally changed my whole world view of the importance of microorganisms,” she said. “It not only brought me to the fields of global science and marine ecosystems -- but that it also was a perfect merger of environmental science and the issues involved in this field. Working on this topic, when it was in its infancy and with lots of discovery potential...that was the beginning for me. I was just so hooked on microbes at that point. I switched almost exclusively to marine microbiology."
Orphan joined DeLong’s lab as a graduate student at UCSB, where she began to work on the foundations of her groundbreaking research on how microbes interact and change the world around them.
“Ed [DeLong] was a really supportive mentor,” she said. “He let me work on things that were of interest to me and didn’t try to push me in a specific direction. I was interested in the oil seeps and the deep oil reservoirs just off the shoreline. We started working on using molecular tools to look at these deep petroleum reservoirs. It became very clear to me that it was essential to understand the environmental and geological context when considering the diversity of the microbial world. It was in these remote exotic habitats that I gained my entry into geobiology.”
Her research at UCSB laid the foundations for the scientific work recognized by the MacArthur Foundation. Orphan and her colleagues have identified how symbiotic interactions between single-celled organisms and bacteria can reveal key implications for understanding our oceans and climate change. The work takes Orphan and her team from the lab, to the field work at sea, investigating deep-ocean microbe communities.
“Being able to go out on these research cruises helps me recharge my batteries,” she said. “You have a smaller team of scientists on the boat and everyone has a job – whether it’s slopping mud or doing geo chem. There is no pecking order.”
At her current role at Caltech, Orphan mentors future scientists in the classroom and at the lab. “Everyday is different,” she said. “I do travel quite a bit when I am not teaching, but most days are spent interacting with my students and postdocs. I have an open-door policy – so some days are a flood of activities and some days I have more breathing room and have time to write in my office. I have a more vicarious experience these days seeing my students carry out the experiments in the lab.”
She also maintains close ties with her mentors and former fellow researchers at UC Santa Barbara. “I like seeing the direction that UCSB is going – the marine sciences and facilities have developed so much since I was a student there,” she said. “Driving through campus, it seems like a very exciting, vibrant place. I am happy to discover that there is a greater connection between the marine sciences and the geosciences. The interdisciplinary nature of UCSB in research and academics is something that many schools still lack. I love the educational experience that I got, especially the ability to get out in the beautiful marine environment there.”
So what will Orphan do next, after answering that fateful call from the MacArthur Foundation? “I’ve only just started thinking about what to do with this kind of funding,” she said. “When it comes to personal research within my group, there are always things that might require specialized equipment that we currently don’t have resources for. I can imagine having this flexible funding over time that would allow us to make the leap, and will push us in certain directions in our work.”
Beyond funding her research, Orphan hopes to give back to the next generation of young scientists. “One of my colleagues also won the grant -- we been fantasizing about ways to give back to the community,” she said. “We would love to promote education and excitement in STEM. I feel like my whole career and personal motivation came from opportunities to do hands-on research to get into the field. I want to facilitate that for kids, to let them know that there are many different ways to be a scientist and not all of us wear lab coats.”