Scripps Student Spotlight: Natalie Grayson

A PhD student researches how pollutants including DDT affect marine microorganisms

San Diego native Natalie Grayson is a second-year PhD student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, where she is studying marine biology. Before coming to Scripps, she attended Princeton University and worked at Georgia Tech University. She currently works under UC San Diego microbiology researcher Jack Gilbert and bioengineer Jeff Hasty.


explorations now: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Natalie Grayson: Having grown up in San Diego, surfing and going to the beach in La Jolla, attending Scripps has been my dream for as long as I can remember. As an avid surfer, swimmer, and snorkeler, I always wanted to study and help cleanup the ocean in my own backyard. Scripps was not only the right choice for me due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, but also because of the scientists it attracts, the connections it fosters, and the balance it encourages. At Scripps, I have had the opportunity to be advised by Dr. Jack Gilbert, a leading microbiology researcher, and Dr. Jeff Hasty, a renowned bioengineer specializing in the construction and utilization of synthetic gene circuits. But because Scripps enables collaboration between labs, I have also been advised by countless other researchers, students, and professors. Starting my first year during the COVID-19 era and only recently beginning my own lab work, I have already had a firsthand glimpse at the unique and welcoming community Scripps is known to hold. 


en: What are you researching at Scripps?

NG: My graduate research focuses on using synthetic biology tools to understand trends in the impacts of pollutants on seafloor microbial communities. Specifically, my current project is aimed at understanding how the currently banned, but historically and ubiquitously used, pesticide DDT affects marine microorganisms. I began this work because a site potentially containing at least 27,000 barrels of pollution and DDT-related waste was recently discovered off the coast of Los Angeles. The end goal of my research is to find organisms or natural processes in the sediments surrounding the barrels at the site that are capable of degrading and removing the DDT already present at the bottom of the ocean. 


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

NG: Spending the summer after my junior year in undergrad doing field work in Moorea, French Polynesia, I had the epiphany that I wanted to help understand the pollution-related issues threatening the marine ecosystems I knew and loved. I am excited to continue exploring the big blue sea, and to dive deeper into the vast unknowns of its microbial communities.


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

NG: I have to admit that I have already logged my fair share of time checking the surf. While walking from my car to Hubbs Hall at the start of my day, I am always sure to choose a route that includes a view of my favorite local wave: the north side of the pier. If I am lucky, I see a fun wave or a fellow lab mate surfing, and start my day off in the water. If I have a long experiment or a heavy lab work day, I like to get started in lab fairly early. But otherwise, I try to read papers and write in the mornings, when I am fresh and awake! When lunchtime rolls around, most days I eat outside, while, you guessed it—checking the surf. In the afternoons, when my attention and energy are typically lacking, I do busy work, like cleaning up, prepping for future experiments, or have meetings, and talking with my peers. I’m always rejuvenated when hearing about their projects or bouncing ideas off of them about my work.

At first, I was hesitant to share the amount of time I spend thinking about the surf during my average day. But judging by the wet footprints I normally find scattered throughout Hubbs and other Scripps buildings, I am pretty sure that I am not the only one! Given the social distancing restrictions of the pandemic, the ocean has been the place that I have met and interacted with a majority of my peers from Scripps in a responsible way.


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

NG: I get really excited by isolating and culturing microbes from the environment. When I take a sediment scoop from the bottom of the ocean (containing unfathomable numbers of microbes that are too small to see with the naked eye), and am able to grow some of the microbes clinging to the grains of sediment back in the lab, I am always amazed. Microbes in the ocean, comprising 98 percent of all oceanic biomass, are responsible for much of the ocean’s nutrient cycling, interact with all marine mammals, supply more than half the world’s oxygen, and can consume anthropogenic waste. Once I have separated the key microbes away from each other, and can study them in isolation, I feel like I can truly appreciate all of the unseen work they do—like breaking down DDT!


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

NG: The two largest supporters and role models in my life are my parents, standing behind me for every step that has gotten me to where I am today. My first big scientific role model was Eduardo Esquenazi, a chemical and molecular biologist. I spent a summer interning at his company, Sirenas, and had my eyes opened to the world of marine chemistry—or as I soon learned, the language of microbes. A Scripps alum himself, Ed taught me how to combine my two passions: science and the ocean. Now at Scripps, my advisors Jeff Hasty and Jack Gilbert have given me the opportunity to learn and grow as a scientist in more ways than I could have ever imagined, and I am beyond grateful. Jeff and Jack have also connected me with their respective labs, each filled with brilliant minds and friendly faces that have shown me the ropes during my first year. A key mentor in my upcoming work involving DDT has been Rachel Diner, and I am excited to continue to learn from her as a scientist and as an amazing, well rounded individual.


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

NG: Starting my PhD in the middle of the pandemic brought along with it a unique blend of challenges. Initially, I felt lost and isolated from my peers. In conjunction with COVID-19 distancing restrictions, my lack of research experience in the fields of bioengineering and toxicology compounded to make the steep learning curve feel nearly vertical at some points. The Scripps community, specifically my lab mates and peers in my marine biology cohort, made the impossible feel conquerable. Any challenge I have not faced yet, be it a method I do not know, or a problem I cannot solve, the community has helped me with open arms, not only teaching me to reach out when I need help, but also making me feel welcome and valued at Scripps.


en: What are your plans post-Scripps?

NG: Most of my current plans involve me at Scripps, but I am looking forward to the doors that open during this journey.

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