Scripps Student Spotlight: Ivan Moreno

A graduate student researches cyanobacteria and bacteria and their ability to adapt and thrive in extreme environments

Ivan Moreno is a third-year PhD student studying marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. Moreno grew up in Long Beach, Calif., and attended California State University Dominguez Hills where he earned his bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology. While an undergraduate, Moreno participated in the Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship, or SURF Program, in which he spent a summer studying extremophile bacteria under the guidance of marine biologist Brian Palenik. He is continuing this microbiology research as a Scripps graduate student, with Palenik as his advisor. Moreno also serves as a Community Engagement Fellow at Scripps, supporting efforts to develop and engage the Scripps community around equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).    

explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Ivan Moreno: My first direct exposure to Scripps was during the summer of 2017 when I was awarded a Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Prior to this I had only learned what Scripps was through a marine microbial video I found on YouTube the month before applying for the SURF program. I spent three months that summer in the lab of Brian Palenik characterizing several isolated thermophilic cyanobacteria. I applied for graduate school the following fall and chose to apply to Scripps, and more specifically the Palenik Lab, in hopes of continuing this same project and delving more into the world of extremophilic microbial genomics and ecology. I learned about the ample microbial genomics-type work being done in various labs here at Scripps and found that it’d be a great place to explore all of my scientific curiosities with the guidance of the many other microbiologists working here. My positive experience during that summer was enough to encourage me to choose to attend Scripps and pursue my doctoral degree here. 

en: What are you researching at Scripps?

IM: Since arriving at Scripps as a graduate student, I’ve continued and expanded on the project I began in 2017. Having both microbial mat samples and isolated cyanobacteria from these freshwater hot springs, I began sequencing both of these types of samples in search of unique cyanobacteria diversity found at the Black Canyon of the Colorado River thermal springs. This led me to the discovery of microbial communities that harbored major diversification of various understudied cyanobacteria groups that may be highly influential in their respective communities. With this came the opportunity to look at the evolution of thermophilic, filamentous cyanobacteria and their roles in these hot springs through the use of isolated cyanobacteria belonging to that same understudied group. Recently, I’ve begun looking at the genomes of these cyanobacteria and their functional potential to understand why this diversification occurred and hopefully gain clues into how cyanobacteria, and other bacteria, adapt and thrive in such extreme environments. We’ve also gone back to Black Canyon to conduct more field work and collect more samples and isolates to continue exploratory work, as well as study specific hot springs and the microbial ecology found in these mats.  

A man in a lab coat and glasses smiles while standing in a lab.
Ivan Moreno in the lab during the 2017 SURF program.

en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study?

IM: I became interested in the extreme limits of life when, as an undergrad in community college, I became obsessed over the potential for life in outer space. The field of astrobiology and the many facets found within this field led me to reading books on this topic and eventually led me to apply for research opportunities related to this topic as an undergrad. While I never intended to have a career as an extremophile microbiologist, I was encouraged by my mentors at the time to pursue this topic of research in graduate school and ultimately ended up applying to programs and labs that focused on topics related to extremophilic microbiology. 

Around the same time, I conducted work in a lab where we looked at the laboratory evolution of E. coli via wet lab and genomic methods which I also enjoyed doing, and this led to my fascination with looking at the evolutionary and ecological aspects of microbes in extreme environments. When it came time to apply to graduate school, I was set on entering a lab that did just this and was fortunate enough to have a number of excellent options to choose from, but ultimately ended up returning to Scripps and continuing the project I started in 2017. 

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

IM: Prior to the pandemic, life at Scripps as a graduate student was great. Scripps does a great job at fostering a community amongst your cohort and as a result I would often end up having lunch with my peers, attending seminars (and getting free lunch), and taking a break by going outside to play with my dog. The amazing San Diego weather also meant that there were plenty of excuses to go outside to the beach and enjoy the sun, while only being minutes away from my office and the rest of the on-campus activities happening. Nowadays, while I still go to campus for essential wet lab work, I spend most of my time on my computer writing and editing manuscripts, analyzing data, and keeping up with the literature in my field. 

en:  What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)?

IM: I love keeping up to date with the groundbreaking research in my field. Being an extremophilic microbiologist means that some of the new work being done is performed using methods for sample collection that are in itself exciting, and then seeing the reveal of what life is found at these extreme environments is equally as exciting. Many of these new discoveries have also led to new avenues for understanding the evolution of life, oxygenation, and limits of carbon-based life on Earth. 

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

IM: I like to think that at every step in my career I’ve gained a valuable mentor (or mentors) who can adequately prepare me for what’s next. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with Dr. Karin Kram and in her lab at CSU Dominguez Hills, and she’s provided me with mentorship and advice that has been invaluable. She introduced me to what REU programs were, taught me about graduate school and how to apply, and helped me with picking the best option when it came time to decide where to go for my PhD. Having her guidance through this entire process, from giving me my first research opportunities to now, inspires me to be an equally great mentor to the undergrads with backgrounds like mine. Jane Teranes here at Scripps, who runs the SURF program, has also taken the time to guide me through the transition from undergrad to graduate school and more specifically here at Scripps. Since the summer of 2017 and now as my doctoral advisor, Brian Palenik has been instrumental in my career development. He’s allowed me to explore just about any aspect of microbiology research I show interest in, from geomicrobiology to metagenomics and wet lab molecular microbiology. Having the flexibility to do work to answer any scientific question I have related to thermophilic microbiology under his guidance has turned out to be a great experience.

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

IM: Being a first-generation student means being unaware of expectations while entering and throughout graduate school. Academic guidance through my undergraduate experience was limited so being in graduate school has largely been a learning experience on its own. As a member of an underrepresented group in the marine sciences, I sometimes find myself yearning for a community similar to that of which I grew up in. Fortunately, I've made a great group of friends who are open to learning about my journey to graduate school and have become a crucial support system to my mental well being and work-life balance at Scripps. 

Additionally, as a community engagement fellow, I hope to help improve the diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups here at Scripps. We hope that the collective efforts of the EDI team members will address the diversity, equity, and inclusion issues we face in academia today and reduce the number of challenges students with backgrounds like mine have when it comes to attaining a higher education in the fields of marine sciences.

en:  What are your plans post-Scripps?

IM: As I near the latter part of my doctoral studies, I’ve begun thinking about my plans post-Scripps and hope to continue work in the field of extremophilic microbiology. This may come in either the form of a scientist at a national laboratory, such as NASA’s astrobiology group, or in a postdoctoral position in an academic lab with parallel research interests. Along the way I plan on continuing to be an advocate for those underrepresented in my field of work and mentoring students who require the same type of guidance I needed as an undergraduate and graduate student. 

You can find Ivan on Twitter at @termofilos, where he shares articles and thoughts about the world of science.

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