Scripps Student Spotlight: Daniel Yee

Scripps PhD student pursues research in molecular and cell biology of diatoms responsible for a large portion of the planet’s photosynthesis and oxygen production

Daniel Yee is a fifth-year PhD student studying marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. His research interests include phytoplankton physiology, cellular pH sensing, photosynthesis, and algal biotechnology. Yee is advised by Martin Tresguerres. After moving from his home in Hacienda Heights, Calif., Yee attended UC San Diego to earn a joint BS/MS in human biology and environmental studies.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Daniel Yee: While I received my bachelor's degree at UC San Diego, a majority of that time was spent completely clueless about Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It wasn't until I participated in the University of California Education Abroad Program (UC-EAP) in Australia for the Marine Biology and Terrestrial Ecology program that I became aware of all the impactful and exciting marine research taking place near me. In addition to marine science, surfing was my main hobby for a long time and Scripps Institution of Oceanography is second to none in both. I always knew that if I were to pursue a PhD, it would be at Scripps.


en: What are you researching at Scripps and how did you become interested in this field?

DY: During my PhD, I have been studying the molecular and cell biology of diatoms which are prolific unicellular microalgae that contribute a large portion of the Earth's photosynthesis and oxygen production. Specifically, I investigate how pH regulation within diatom cells influence the physiology of nutrient storage, and the biosynthesis of their ornate cell walls made of silica. I began studying phytoplankton during my master's research with Greg Mitchell in the Scripps Photobiology Group, and worked for several years researching and developing algal biofuels at Synthetic Genomics. Therefore, continuing to study phytoplankton under the guidance of Martin Tresguerres and the late Mark Hildebrand was a natural choice.



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

DY: I live in North Park, so it starts with a commute through traffic followed by driving up and down La Jolla Shores, El Paseo Grande, and Calle Corta looking for parking. As a laboratory scientist, my days are split between my office reading and writing; in the lab pipetting; in the 18-degree Celsius environmental room cultivating diatoms; and in front of a microscope trying to understand the inner workings of the diatom cell. As a scientist in a comparative physiology lab and at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I also enjoy spontaneous conversations where I learn about subjects besides phytoplankton, from topics such as fish, corals, urchins, sea slugs, and osedax worm biology to the geochemistry of hydrological weathering of sediments, whale acoustics, and ocean wave modeling of data collected from autonomous floats. My day ends with a commute home, then driving around my neighborhood (you guessed it!) looking for parking.


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

DY: I am a visual learner, so having the opportunity to work with many advanced imaging technologies including traditional fluorescence, confocal, super-resolution, and scanning electron microscopy has been amazing. With these tools I have been able to peek into the dynamics of individual proteins in living cells at the nanoscale in order to elucidate their functions. The hours spent in a dark room staring down the lens of a microscope can be meditative and reflective, with the spell being broken by eureka moments. Seeing these biomechanisms take place in diatoms has been incredibly exciting and have helped me to appreciate the complexity of life on earth.


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

DY: I have drawn inspiration from many people in my scientific journey. One person was John Hall, whose passionate lectures on plant ecology and natural history in the classrooms and terrestrial landscapes of Australia inspired me to pursue scientific research as a career. Shaun Bailey was my boss at Synthetic Genomics who fostered my intellectual curiosity within a fast paced industrial research setting and gave me the confidence to pursue a PhD. The late Mark Hildebrand was my co-advisor. Mark celebrated every result and discovery I made, no matter how small, and taught me how exciting fundamental biology and basic research can be. Last but not least, Martin Tresguerres taught me how to persevere in science, celebrate the wins, learn and rebound from the losses, and basically, to “Just Giver”--that phrase comes from the Candaian mockumentary, FUBAR; essentially, it just means to ‘try your best’!


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

DY: I would say the biggest challenge is finding parking at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but also, a bit of self-doubt. During the transition from a job to my first year as a PhD student, I was immediately humbled by how little I actually knew about my field of study, and questioned if restarting my career was a mistake. As I enter my final year, I am still humbled by how much there is to learn, but the feeling is now motivating rather than defeating. The PhD process is also long and committing, and defending seems to be followed by financial and geographic uncertainty. I have found that these factors introduce extra challenges to planning for the long-term. For this and the parking, my solution is to remain optimistic and look for the opportunities. 


en: What are your plans?

DY: In the short-term, I hope I will get a chance to travel, rock climb, and surf before starting a postdoc. While I love San Diego, I look forward to possibly moving abroad and continuing my training in a new city and country.


About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at

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