Scripps Student Spotlight: Alyssa Demko

PhD student fascinated by chemistry in the natural world pursues research on microbes

Alyssa Demko is a sixth-year PhD student studying marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. She holds a bachelor's degree in marine biology and chemistry from Roger Williams University and a master's degree in marine biology from the College of Charleston. She is currently researching microbes found in tropical marine sediments at the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine (CMBB) and is advised by Scripps microbial ecologist Paul Jensen.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Alyssa Demko: I am really fascinated by the role of chemistry in the natural world and, more specifically, how chemistry influences species interactions. Prior to attending Scripps, I received an MS from the College of Charleston where I studied algal-herbivore interactions across latitudinal gradients. While I was working with invertebrates and seaweeds, I became curious about what I couldn't easily see: microbes, like bacteria. It was my interest in learning more about microbial chemical ecology that led me to Scripps and working with Dr. Paul Jensen. 


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

AD: For my dissertation, I am studying the microbiome and metabolome of tropical marine sediments, and asking questions about how the microbial community and the chemistry associated with those communities changes across spatial scales and in different environments. Marine sediments host an extraordinary abundance and diversity of microbes, making for really complex communities that are poorly studied relative to other systems. I hope my research will provide more insight into these communities, their chemistry, and how changes in these communities may be influencing the rest of the coral reef ecosystem. 


A woman standing on a boat wearing a scuba suit


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day.

AD: Life as a Scripps student is great, although it is a bit strange right now given the pandemic. My days are pretty variable; sometimes I spend my entire day in the lab doing extractions for DNA or chemistry and then other days I am computer-based, analyzing the results from my lab work and sequencing runs or working on papers and presentations. Scripps also hosts a number of great seminar series, so I frequently attend talks by my colleagues at Scripps and from visiting scientists. Pre-COVID, I also greatly enjoyed grabbing coffee and discussing science with other students, postdocs, and faculty members.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?

AD: While I think there are many exciting things about my work, I would say the most exciting thing is when I get to do field work. When we are in the field, we sample sediments around coral reefs while SCUBA diving and do our sample processing in field labs or makeshift labs we set up on location. We are only in the field for a short period of time, around one week, so there is a lot of preparation beforehand, making sure we have everything needed for sampling and any other experiments we plan to do while in the field. I love field work because it is an immersive experience where you get to explore the natural world, collect data related to exciting scientific questions, collaborate with scientists from different institutions and learn about the local community.


en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?

AD: I am incredibly lucky to have had many amazing mentors and role models throughout my life, starting with my parents and my science teachers who supported and encouraged my interests in marine sciences. I am incredibly grateful to my undergraduate science professors at Roger Williams University, especially my research advisor, Dr. Andrew Rhyne, and to Dr. Lisa Milke who mentored me during an undergraduate NOAA Hollings Internship. Additionally, my MS advisor, Dr. Erik Sotka, has been a great mentor who taught me most of what I know about field ecology and introduced me to many scientists who I view as mentors and role models, including Dr. Valerie Paul. And finally, my PhD advisor at Scripps, Dr. Paul Jensen, who accepted me into his lab and has supported my research goals over the last five years.


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?

AD: Graduate school definitely has its ups and downs, which can be challenging. For me, I think one of the biggest challenges was transitioning into microbial ecology research when I did not have a microbiology or bioinformatics background. Learning the techniques and skills to answer the questions I am interested in has definitely involved a steep learning curve, but I am grateful for the experience and look forward to continually learning and improving my skills.


en: What are your future plans?

AD: My goal post-Scripps is to complete a postdoc that further integrates my interests in microbial ecology, natural product chemistry, and coral reef ecology. Ultimately, I hope to continue in academia and specifically work at a primarily undergraduate institution. I would not be where I am today without the amazing mentorship and guidance I received as an undergraduate, so I would love to continue doing research while providing research opportunities to the next generation of scientists.

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