Many scientists consider the ocean to be the next frontier for discovery of new medical treatments for disease and development of new antibiotics to combat drug-resistant infections. Researchers with the Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine (CMBB) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego specialize in the study of marine biomedicine and marine drug discovery, with an emphasis on cancer and both infectious and inflammatory diseases.
Christopher Leber is a fourth-year PhD candidate at Scripps studying marine chemical biology under the mentorship of Distinguished Professor William Gerwick. He was drawn to Scripps for the opportunity to work within a “vibrant community” of marine natural products researchers at CMBB, where he is currently researching Moorea bouillonii, a cyanobacterium that is woven by a snapping shrimp and is being studied for anticancer properties. This research has taken him on collection trips to the waters off of India and Guam, where he has gone scuba diving to collect marine cyanobacteria and algae samples. (View photo gallery.)
Leber grew up in Aptos, Calif., a small beach community on Monterey Bay. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of California Los Angeles, where he studied marine biology and minored in atmospheric and oceanic science. We sat down with Leber to discuss his marine natural products research, his path to science, and more.
Q: What are you researching at Scripps and how did you become interested in this field?
Christopher Leber: The major research focus of my PhD is the natural partnership between a specific filamentous cyanobacterium (blue-green algae) called Moorea bouillonii and a snapping shrimp (pistol shrimp) known as Alpheus frontalis. The shrimp collects the filaments of the cyanobacterium and weaves them into extensive structures of tubes and chambers on coral reefs. The cyanobacterium also produces a wide range of interesting compounds, some of which can kill cancer cells, or modulate signaling in the body. I am interested in learning more about the chemistry produced by M. bouillonii, how this chemistry plays a role in its relationship with A. frontalis, and the impact of this mutually beneficial association on coral reef systems.
My background is in marine biology, but I came into graduate school with much enthusiasm to learn more chemistry, both in terms of marine natural products and chemical ecology. When I became interested in joining the Gerwick Lab—which specializes in cyanobacterial natural products and had previously and extensively studied the chemistry of M. bouillonii—Professor Gerwick introduced this cyanobacterium-shrimp symbiosis to me, and I was immediately captivated and excited to learn more.
Q: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day in your life.
CL: My research has many different elements, including fieldwork and collections, extractions, chromatography, analytical chemistry, cyanobacterial culturing, coding, data analysis, and more. Most time is spent either in the lab or at my computer, with the occasional jaunt off into the field.
Q: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?
CL: One thing that I find most exciting about my work is the conceptual basis behind natural products research. We are studying compounds that have been developed through evolutionary time to serve a specific purpose in nature, whether that is to facilitate communication between organisms, to provide an organism a competitive advantage over its neighbors, to defend prey from a predator, or any number of other organismal interactions. By studying these compounds in an ecological context, we can discover invisible interactions that are helping to shape ecosystems. By studying these compounds in terms of drug discovery, we are harnessing nature’s research and development of a biologically active compound, and can learn from the compound’s properties and chemical ecological uses to find analogous systems to which the compound can be applied for human benefit.
It is exciting and humbling to me that nature hosts this background of chemical interactions that are structuring what we observe in the environment and that have potential to improve the human condition. I feel very strongly that if we are thoughtful in our approaches, and are committed to defending the biodiversity that supports these chemical ecological interactions, there is much to be learned and gained by studying natural products.
Q: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?
CL: I would not be a PhD student at Scripps studying marine chemical biology without my high school marine biology teacher Greg McBride. I have long enjoyed spending time in and on the ocean, but it was not until taking McBride’s class during my senior year of high school that I really began to develop a deep curiosity and wonder for the creatures that dwell within the ocean, and the range of influence that the ocean exerts across many different aspects of life on our planet. McBride organizes trips to the Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI) and to the Olympic Peninsula National Park, where students get to snorkel, kayak, canoe, hike, and generally explore these amazing environments. These experiences made me a huge proponent for going out into nature to do science. While time spent in the laboratory is definitely necessary for my work, there is so much to be learned from jumping in the water and opening your eyes to what is going on.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?
CL: The biggest challenge I have faced as a graduate student is finding balance – balance between work and life, balance between thinking and doing, and balance between focus on details and consideration of the greater picture. I have found that it is quite easy for me to get too drawn into my work. I will sometimes spend most all of my time and energy focused on solving one specific problem. This can be helpful for a bit but it typically leads to an erosion of my productivity. My thinking becomes less flexible and less creative, and I become too focused on solving that specific issue, losing sight of why that issue might be important, or how it influences other aspects of my research. In contrast, when I instead take a step back and allow myself to engage in other aspects of life, I find that I can much better retain energy and excitement for my work, and I can be much more thoughtful, creative, and, ultimately, more successful in my approaches.
Q: What are your future plans, post-Scripps?
CL: There are many different things I am interested in, and so many different potential career paths I could see myself going down. Throughout my PhD, I have made an effort to develop many different useful skills, to broadly acquire knowledge on topics that interest me, and to engage with people who are doing work that excites me. When it comes time to move on to my next adventure, I plan to seek out opportunities that not only capture my curiosity and are intellectually stimulating, but that will also be effort well spent in helping to improve the state of humanity and the planet.
This interview has been condensed and edited. View more of Leber's photos on Instagram: @christopher_a_leber.
– Brittany Hook