Interview with Dana Rogoff

The SETI Institute would like to introduce you to Dana Rogoff, a biologist with a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology and a Masters in Biology, with an emphasis on marine biology. She also has a background in molecular biology. Dana has been with the SETI Institute for the past 7 years. Her previous position was at NASA Ames, where she worked as a Research Associate for 11 years.

Dana Rogoff
Dana Rogoff
Image courtesy Seth Shostak

Dana, please summarize your research project.

This research project is a collaboration between the SETI Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, Airship Ventures, and the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, with funding from the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). Monitoring the microbes in the natural solar salt evaporation systems in the San Francisco Bay’s extremely salty, or hypersaline, ponds, as well as those in less saline ponds within the same system, provides an opportunity to observe habitat change and ecosystem evolution on a relatively short time scale.

We are fortunate to have the use of the Zeppelin NT, an airship run by Airship Ventures, that we will outfit with two high-resolution cameras to focus on different types of light and one hyperspectral spectrometer that can detect certain characteristics with respect to the light coming off the ponds, or reflectance. The remote sensing capability will allow us to track and take pictures of several ponds, which have different coloration. We will correlate these data to ground measurements of reflectance and biological samples, identifying exactly what the ponds consist of -- how much salt, the organisms and ground reflectance for calibration -- so we can construct a model to track similar systems using remote sensing.

Why are the ponds different colors?

The salt ponds are a gradient of salinities. The microbes – the microscopic bacteria, archaea, and even little single cell eukaryotes -- that live in these ponds have pigment within their cellular structure, just as we have pigment on our skin, and there are so many of these little organisms in each pond that the color of the water reflects the pigments of these microbial populations. As the environment changes -- the water salinities go from low to high -- the microbial populations change and, thus, the pigments expressed change as well. The pigment can be green, orange, or a beautiful pink. The green organisms allow their environment to look “normal” as the ponds they live in are only slightly more salty than typical ocean water, which contains 3.5% salt. The orange ponds contain even more salt – anywhere from 10 to around 17% and can still exhibit some of the green coloration. The pink coloration indicates water that can contain up to 10 times more salt, or 35%, which puts a lot of stress on an organism. Imagine 100 ounces of water and 35 ounces of that is pure salt -- that’s how salty the ponds can be.

These salt-loving organisms that somehow have adapted and survive in these salt ponds are known as extremophiles. The organisms’ pigments allow them to survive natural stresses, such as osmotic stress and high radiation, or UV, stress which happens in salt evaporation pond systems.

What role do you play in this project?

I get to do the really fun stuff and get muddy while conducting field work on the ground. I’ll collect samples and take in situ measurements, such as temperature, pH, and salinity. I’ll then take the samples back to the lab, extract the pigments, identify the organisms with microscopy and DNA-based analyses, and study them from a lab perspective. As a team, we’ll pick out specific pigments and look for relationships between the pigments and the remote sensing data. The combination of findings from the airship and the field will form a more comprehensive piece of the overall puzzle of ecosystem change.

What is the coolest thing about your project?

Salt ponds
Google Map Image of salt ponds
Image courtesy Google Maps

The entire project is really fun – field work, pretty colors -- but the airship takes the research to a whole new level. The Zeppelin presents a novel opportunity because it can fly fairly low, slow – even hover and is more stable than airplanes or helicopters, is less expensive, and can cover the entire ponds pretty quickly. Not to mention it is based in our “backyard.”

In the past, we would do field sampling, take regular pictures or use the photos taken from satellites which didn’t have the resolution we can get from the airship and study the microbes that live in each pond. Now, we’ll be able to integrate the airship, remote sensing capability, and hyperspectral imagery with the field sampling and that’s pretty exciting!

What kind of impact will your research have on the environment?

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is one of the largest restoration projects in the United States. About 25,000 acres of former salt ponds are going to be restored to tidal wetlands, managed ponds for birds and native plant habitat. Cargill Salt Co., who harvests the salt, decided to consolidate their business and sell some of that land to state and federal governments. U.S. Fish & Wildlife, along with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and other state agencies, will be restoring the ponds. Restoration can be important for native plant growth, flood protection, and creating a filtering system for the Bay. Wetlands are beautiful and provide recreational areas for the communities. Estuaries and wetlands may also reflect early impacts of climate change. We are working with these agencies to identify a method for easy tracking of these systems as the restoration proceeds.

How does this research tie into the SETI Institute?

Studying extremophiles is useful for research in astrobiology and evolutionary biology, and the Institute is interested in life on earth as well as other planets and beyond. If we understand some of the cellular characteristics of these hypersaline extremophiles and can detect their presence remotely, it can possibly help us (us meaning scientists in general) detect life beyond earth. If we ever find life outside of Earth, we can utilize information known about extremophiles, such as hypersaline microbes studied on Earth, and understand how they survive, at what point in survival are they, and so on. It will take a concerted effort to answer those types of complex questions. We cannot forget, however, that an important part of astrobiology is trying to understand the future of life here on earth. This study relates to that directly by providing data on ecosystem dynamics and ecosystem resilience.

What do you hope this research leads to?

When flying into San Jose Airport, I’ve heard people comment on the salt ponds. They wonder what they are, and they think the pink color is a result of some sort of pollution, which is totally untrue. If I’m sitting next to them I can explain about the microbes and their pigments. It would be great if, as a result of these studies, I could be on an airplane and hear a passenger say, “Oh, those ponds are pink because of the microbial populations living in high salt environments.”

More importantly, however, I would like the project to lead to more collaborations and partnerships with environmental organizations. The more people who work together, the quicker we’ll find answers to today’s concerns.

What first sparked your interest in science?

As is true with many college students, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. As a sophomore at Washington State University, I took a Biology for Non-majors class. My professor, Dr. John Crane, was hilarious and amazing! Every day he’d start with a Gary Larson comic. It was usually something that pertained to an amoeba, bacterium, or genetics. He made biology fun and always made me laugh. We started off with Punnett Squares in genetics, and I loved it! Professor Crane’s wonderful style of teaching started me down my current path in science and discovery, for which I’ll always be grateful.

How did you come to join the SETI Institute?

I was very fortunate to have gotten a position with NASA Ames that came about as a result of working at the Marine Science Institute, a non-profit educational organization in Redwood City. After college, I took a job as a counselor for MSI’s summer program. I had a really cute kid in my class, and the last day of the program I told his mom how much I enjoyed having her son in the program. She asked me, “What are you doing with your life?” It turns out that “mom” was Dr. Lynn Rothschild at NASA Ames. I let her know I had just graduated and was thinking about going for my Masters in Molecular Biology. She offered me a job working with her and the Marine Science Institute on phytoplankton and UV radiation in the San Francisco Bay. I met Dr. Rocco Mancinelli during my years at Ames and starting working with him on some projects, which led to the halophile side of research. That led me to the opportunity of working with the SETI Institute about seven years ago.

What was your dream job as a child?

As a little girl, I wanted to be a marine biologist. As a kid, I loved orcas and other marine life. My mom claims I was kissed by Shamu at Marine World, so maybe that’s where it all started!

What is your favorite movie?

One of my all-time favorites is Finding Nemo. Maybe it stems back to Shamu and my love of marine biology!

How do you spend your free time?

I love gardening and other outdoor activities like hiking, camping, backpacking, biking, volleyball and swimming. I’m also currently coaching my softball team. I enjoy reading, attending concerts, and having dinner with friends. And I love to dive when I can. Most recently, I went on a four-day dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef. I lived aboard a catamaran and did 13 dives in 4 days. It was amazing, beautiful, and exhausting. We saw manta rays, sharks, and went on night dives with a dim flashlight. I originally learned to dive in the Red Sea off the coast of Egypt. That was six weeks of diving, and in my log book, I noted that visibility was “forever.”

If you had the time, what would you still like to learn?

Everything! I’m interested in learning more about remote sensing. Also, I have some experience in education, but I’d really like to learn more about how to communicate science and expose more people to anything and everything. The first thing I’d introduce is salt ponds and extremophiles. It would be great to get the public really excited about science and the environment.