Saturday, November 18, 2017
 
Pomponi, Shirley

Pomponi, Shirley

Diving into Research and Exploring the Unexplored

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Shirley Pomponi, director of NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration, Research and Technology (CIOERT), thrives on exploration and being at sea. She has led numerous research expeditions worldwide and has made more than 300 dives in submersibles. Her personal research interests involve exploration for marine plants and animals – specifically sponges – that produce chemicals which can be developed into drugs to treat human diseases. Pomponi received a Ph.D. in biological oceanography from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. CIOERT is a partnership of NOAA, Florida Atlantic University, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

 

Why does your research matter?

The oceans occupy more 95 percent of the habitable space on Earth, yet most of it (from some estimates, as much as 95 percent) remains unexplored or poorly understood.  We know that the oceans support diverse ecosystems, hundreds of thousands of described species plants and animals. Who knows how many are yet to be discovered? The ocean is home to millions (or maybe billions) of microbes. Of the organisms we’ve studied to date, tens of thousands of novel chemicals have been discovered, and many of these are being studied for their usefulness as drugs to treat human diseases. Some are already clinically available. There is still much to be studied. 

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I enjoy being at sea the most. The perspective I’ve gotten from actually being IN the sea — using manned-submersibles to conduct my research — has given me a much better understanding of deep sea ecosystems than I could’ve gotten using remote platforms for observation and sampling.  

Did the priorities of your research change after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

My priorities haven’t changed, but perhaps the urgency has changed. I’m disappointed that we didn’t know enough about the deepwater ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico (particularly in the area south of the spill) so that we knew what the baseline conditions were prior to the spill. 

We are still working on evaluating the molecular responses of deep water corals and sponges that occur on the west Florida shelf and that may have been exposed to dispersed oil.

What did your research contribute to our knowledge of the spill?

We are still evaluating the data.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

" I think it’s more important for older students...to take advantage of internship opportunities so that they can experience first-hand what it means to be a scientist."

I’d invent two platforms for ocean exploration and deep sea research:

* an autonomous underwater vehicle that is capable of communicating images and environmental data in real time, stopping at an interesting site, and taking a small subsample (a “biopsy”) for either on-location or laboratory molecular/chemical analysis; and

* a fleet of easily transportable and deployable manned-submersibles, with a range of depth capabilities (including full ocean depth), sampling tools, and real time communication of images and data back to the surface.

Together, these two platforms would enable unlimited access to explore and study the oceans.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I wanted to be a nurse from the time I was a little girl. I decided I wanted to be a marine scientist between my sophomore and junior year in college, when I had the opportunity to take a field course in the Virgin Islands.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

I don’t have a reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science. I think it’s more important for older students (i.e., undergraduates and graduates) to take advantage of internship opportunities so that they can experience first-hand what it means to be a scientist. Younger students should take advantage of informal educational experiences that are offered by museums, aquariums, research institutes, and even summer camps. 

And how about a personal favorite book?

Oohhh…there are so many.  Here are some recent favorites: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Poisonwood Bible, Shadow Divers, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

I didn’t expect to have to advocate on behalf of NOAA so that they could get the federal funding they need to conduct their mission. To me, the research that we need to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources so that we can have healthy and resilient ecosystems, communities, and economies should not be considered by our Congress as “discretionary”.   

Do you have an outside hobby?

Gardening, especially growing orchids.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I probably would’ve been a nurse.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

My favorite historical scientist is not among the top 100 most influential, but he has had a profound influence on my research. Henry Van Peters Wilson discovered the ability of isolated sponge cells to sort themselves out from cells of other sponge species and to reaggregate into functional sponges. This discovery supported the establishment of the “cell theory” (i.e., that cells form the fundamental structural and functional units of all living organisms). It also supported my research on the development of sponge cell lines to better understand the production of bioactive chemicals by sponges.

 

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