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University of Delaware doctoral student Leland Wood
University of Delaware doctoral student Leland Wood works at UD with Sunita Shah Walter, assistant professor in the School of Marine Science and Policy, looking at marine organic chemistry, studying the organic molecules that microbes produce and consume. This microbial work allowed Wood to participate in the 2023 International Geobiology Course where he traveled to Italy with his fellow doctoral students in the field of geobiology to gain a hands-on field experience and networking opportunity, all while learning a variety of sampling techniques.

Marine scientist

Photo by Erica Barlow

UD doctoral student Leland Wood reflects on time at UD, research experience in Italy looking at microbes in caves

Just as some kids fall in love with the sea on their first trip to the beach, University of Delaware doctoral student Leland Wood fell in love with marine science at a young age. 

Wood grew up along the Pacific Coast in Newport, Oregon, a small fishing town home to a large scientific community. In addition to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the town also has Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Coastal Ecology branch, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries field office. 

“In Newport, a lot of my friends’ parents were marine scientists who showed me what it was like to be a scientist,” Wood said. “I got first involved through the aquarium when I started volunteering in high school. That’s when I got my first taste of marine science.” 

While attending the University of Washington as an undergraduate majoring in oceanography with a minor in chemistry, Wood started working with Anitra Ingalls, the Calvin Professor in Oceanography at the University of Washington. It was there that he was able to gain lab experience and work with marine chemistry and microbes.

“That’s how I fell into what I am currently working on at UD,” said Wood, who works with Sunita Shah Walter, assistant professor in UD’s School of Marine Science and Policy (SMSP), on marine organic chemistry, studying the organic molecules that microbes produce and consume. “I’ve always been interested in hydrothermal vents, so I started looking for Ph.D. opportunities where I was able to research vents and those types of ecosystems. That’s how I found Suni. She had this awesome project that she was starting, and it was perfect timing to join so I moved out here to Delaware and started working on it.” 

Wood also studies the interactions between microbes and how they participate in carbon cycling by eating organic matter, transforming it, and spitting it back out into the environment. 

Shah Walter said Wood has been great to work with during his time at UD. 

“Already by his third year, his skill and knowledge make him a resource to everyone else in the lab,” Shah Walter said. “He is also full of interesting questions about microbial processes and carbon cycling in the deep sea. I think he has a bright future ahead of him.” 

Wood’s main area of interest is in hydrothermal vents, or undersea volcanoes, and their role in these biogeochemical cycles. 

“I am interested in the microbes that live in and around hydrothermal vents and how they use the energy from the earth to function,” Wood said. “I’m working on a project right now with Suni on a uniquely sedimented vent system in the Guaymas Basin where we’re studying microbes that live in the sediments near vents that are heated from really high-temperature water.”

That microbial interest allowed Wood to participate in the 2023 International Geobiology Course, hosted by Penn State University and led by Kate Freeman and Jennifer Macalady, both professors at PSU. 

Over the course of the summer of 2023, Wood joined fellow doctoral students in the field of geobiology to gain hands-on field experience and networking opportunities, all while learning a variety of sampling techniques, traveling to Italy, Pennsylvania and New York. 

Wood was able to attend the course thanks in part to a Stavros Howe Grant from SMSP which provides support for ecological research and other professional activities by SMSP graduate students.  

The fieldwork took place for two weeks at the Coldigioco Geological Observatory in Acona, a city in central Italy. Wood said he was able to do a bit of sightseeing before the class started and it was incredible to explore all that the region had to offer — both before the class and during the experience. 

“We got to go learn about the geology of Italy. We would hike up a mountain and look around and learn about the different structures we were seeing,” Wood said. “We also got to go caving, which I think was my favorite part.” 

While caving, they were able to study the geology of caves and how they form and learn about the organisms and the microbes that lived in the caves. 

“I don’t really have a good word for it other than spectacular,” Wood said. “That was the first time I ever got to go off ‘wild caving’ because there were no paths, there were no handrails to walk through the cave. There was enough space for all of us to stand up and look around, but you’re walking into the earth, underground, in a totally different environment, completely cut off from the surface, and getting to study totally unique organisms that are living down there.” 

When they returned to the United States, they spent three weeks at Penn State where they conducted lab work on the samples that they collected from Italy, running the samples through a bunch of different instruments and performing different analyses in order to get the students as much of a variety of lab work as possible. 

“We were exposed to all varieties and all different kinds of research through this course,” Wood said. “We were able to take samples of rocks from hundreds of millions of years ago and analyze their components.” 

They also did chemistry to extract the fossilized organic molecules trapped in the rock to study past Earth conditions and took microbial samples from within the caves and at hot springs for genomic sequencing and pigment analysis. 

“This allowed us to understand who was there and their function within the systems,” Wood said. “Additionally, we did several types of isotopic analysis, elemental ratios, and spectroscopy to further our understanding of the biogeochemistry of these systems and their role in Earth’s past and present.” 

Wood said he was able to learn these new methods to apply to his current research and they also gave him a lot of ideas for future projects. 

In addition, they traveled to Green Lake, located in Fayetteville, New York, where they were able to sample microbes and bacteria on the lake using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Wood said the lake had fascinating chemistry as it is relatively small and was made from the melting of glaciers. This isolated system is used as a model for similar systems in Earth’s past and gives a glimpse into what microbes were doing millions of years ago. 

Using the ROV allowed the researchers to look at an area of the lake that is otherwise off-limits to humans. 

“Diving in these lakes would be impossible because of the chemistry, and it’s actually poisonous to humans to be able to dive into because there’s so much sulfite in the water that it makes you sick,” Wood said. “We wouldn’t be able to access it otherwise, and it’s just fascinating. It’s another world and you’re exploring a place with these beautiful microbial structures that look like waterfalls spilling over the edge and growing on rocks and some of them look like little ghosts.” 

Overall, Wood said the experience was beneficial both for its practical, hands-on applications as well as the networking opportunities it provided. 

“Jen and Kate really did an amazing job of bringing in guest lecturers and instructors for the course, and we got to meet, in addition to Jen and Kate, who are giants in the field, all sorts of other people who were experts in their field and were able to teach us and help guide our research,” Wood said. “For me, personally, it got me excited about research again. It was nice to be able to pull back out and get a broad picture of geobiology and get excited about it.”

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