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Andrea Rocha

Scientist’s baseline quantitative data on microbes bolsters DOE research in pollution and energy

When scientists want to predict changes in an environment, they can monitor and analyze the prevalence and behavior of organisms that are ecologically termed keystone species. When a keystone species declines or disappears, it has tremendous effects on its dependent surrounding environment, sometimes necessitating years for restoration and recovery.

Andrea Rocha holds a doctorate in engineering science from the University of South Florida and is part of a team of scientists across Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and other academic and national labs who hope to advance the understanding of Earth’s most numerous life form—microorganisms—upon which all life forms rely.

Andrea Rocha

Andrea Rocha uses her doctorate in engineering science to study microorganisms at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Because microorganisms are used in a variety of scientific and engineering applications like bioenergy production and environmental restoration, understanding more about them is key to maximizing their benefits to society. Photo credit: Lynn Freeny, DOE

Since May 2012, Rocha has been a participant in the ORNL Postdoctoral Research Associates Program, administered by ORAU through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education contract with the U.S. Department of Energy. The program advances scientific and technical training for doctorate level scientists and engineers in disciplines of critical national need, like neutron science, high performance computing and biological systems.

“As part of my postdoctoral research, I am working on a collaborative project, ENIGMA [Ecosystems and Networks Integrated with Genes and Molecular Assemblies], to determine subsurface keystone bacteria species differences in gradients of pH, nitrate, uranium, and conductivity to enable modeling of microbial community resiliency,” said Rocha.

The purpose of the ENIGMA study is to predict the key factors that would enable microbes to survive, compete and cooperate in DOE-relevant research like bioremediation of hazardous waste sites, carbon sequestration and bioenergy production.

She completed a study of contaminated well sites along the Y-12 Nuclear Complex in 2013 and is now measuring groundwater microbial behavior over time.

“I strive to determine how the temporal and/or seasonal variation of groundwater geochemistry along different depths and geochemical transects affects the microbial community structure, activity, and genetic diversity there.”

Her days are diverse. Sometimes, she spends her time in the lab, extracting DNA from microbes; other times, she participates in conference calls with some of the nation’s leading researchers; and still other days she spends hours outside in the field, collecting microbial samples to analyze using ORNL’s state-of-the-art equipment.

“During field sampling, we had one day where coyotes kept coming by to check out what we were doing. Circling coyotes made it an interesting day,” she said.

Rocha has enjoyed the program for its variety of activity and opportunities to connect with other scientists at the lab and beyond.

“As an ORAU postdoc, I enjoy the fact that we have a Postdoc Association at ORNL to promote and provide professional development activities,” she said. “I like that the postdocs interact with one another and that we can begin to foster networking and scientific communication among our peers.”

Rocha feels that she has grown professionally as a result of her daily responsibilities and interactions, a factor that will help her when she applies for a staff position at ORNL or another lab. Additionally, ten years from now, she plans on running her own lab group. By then, she will likely have a postdoc or two of her own.

To learn more about the Science Education Programs available at ORNL, please visit www.orau.org/ornl.