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Kirchman presents inaugural Alison lecture on microbes, oceans

Kirchman presents inaugural Alison lecture on microbes, oceans

As a microbial ecologist, University of Delaware Prof. David Kirchman used to have the luxury of being left alone to do his work with no one bothering him.

Not any more.

With alarming increases in carbon in the Earth's atmosphere, scientists and policy makers across the globe are interested in his knowledge about the role of microbes in the carbon cycle and other bio-geochemical processes of the oceans.

Kirchman, the Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor of Marine Studies, shared some research highlights from his 25-year career at UD during his Francis Alison Inaugural Lecture, “A Journey Into our Unseen World: Marine Microbes and Global Cycles,” on Wednesday, Nov. 17, at the Roselle Center for the Arts.

Kirchman delivered the lecture as the most recent recipient of the University's Francis Alison Award.

“The Alison Award is the University's highest faculty honor, given annually to the faculty member whose scholarship and teaching set him or her apart,” said Provost Tom Apple in his introduction of Kirchman.

Apple then cited a number of reasons for Kirchman's selection as the 2010 Alison scholar, including his development of the method used to measure the rate of bacterial growth in the ocean and the impact of his research on the scientific community's thinking about carbon flow in climate-change models.

Kirchman has conducted research in all of the world's oceans, and his colleagues have referred to him as “the preeminent marine microbial ecologist in the world today” and credited him with “defining the governing paradigms in the field and setting the research agenda.”

In his lecture Kirchman expressed concern that bacterial growth is increasing in polar waters and becoming more similar to the rates measured in oceans at lower latitudes.

“But it's not enough just to know the rates,” Kirchman said. “We want to identify the bacteria so that we can better understand their role.” To this end, he and his colleagues are using the latest technologies to look at the genetic makeup of microbial colonies.

Why study the oceans? Because they make up more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface.

“We live on a blue planet,” Kirchman said. “If we want to talk about carbon, we have to talk about the oceans.”

Kirchman also pointed out that global warming isn't really global. “Some areas, like the poles, are heating up,” he said, “while others are cooling off.”

“Will we see an ice-free Arctic in the summer by 2020?” Kirchman asked. “I don't know, but that would have widespread implications not only ecologically but also geopolitically and economically.”

Whatever the outcome, Kirchman continues to be fascinated by the diversity and complexity of the world's oceans.

He closed his lecture by quoting Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University professor and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, whose biological specialty is the study of ants.

In his autobiography, Naturalist, Wilson wrote, “The key to taking the measure of biodiversity lies in a downward adjustment of scale. The smaller the organism, the broader the frontier and the deeper the unmapped terrain.”

Wilson went on to say that if he could do it all over again and relive his vision in the 21st century, he would be a microbial ecologist.

Kirchman said he is glad that he made that choice.

After the lecture, UD President Patrick Harker awarded Kirchman the Alison Medal and cited a testimonial from one of the Alison Scholar's former students, who wrote, “In the field of microbial ecology, Prof. Kirchman is the equivalent of a rock star.”

“It doesn't get any better than that,” Harker said.

Article by Diane Kukich
Photo by Evan Krape