Dr. Margaret Romine (right), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, mentors postdoctoral fellows and early career scientists on her projects, encouraging them to explore new directions and learn new techniques.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory microbiologist Dr. Margaret Romine is co-lead of a multi-institutional program focused on developing an understanding of interactions that promote the formation of microbial mats in geothermal springs in Yellowstone National Park and a hypersaline lake in northern Washington State. These fundamental research studies are aimed at learning about how microbes co-evolve and work together to survive in extreme environments. Knowledge gained from this research will provide a foundation for learning how to manipulate microbial assemblages for a desired outcome such as sequestration of carbon, production of biofuels, or biotransformation of contaminants. Bringing together experiments and computational approaches, Margie maintains and updates the genome annotation of the microbes found in the different water layers in these springs and lake. She probes and validates the microbial gene functions, predicts new gene functions, and maps these functions to cellular subsystems. Further, she integrates this information with experimental results to describe microbial metabolism at a systems level. Margie earned a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Texas at Austin and bachelor's in microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Earlier in her career, she was part of the team that developed the RubberCycle Technology, which won an R&D 100 Award in 1997. This technology uses sulfur-loving microbes to modify ground tires. Mixed with virgin rubber, the resulting material performs better than all-virgin rubber. Margie mentors postdoctoral fellows and early career scientists on her projects, encouraging them to explore new directions and learn new techniques.
1) What inspired you to work in STEM?
My high school had a strong science program and some outstanding teachers that got me interested in science. In high school and elementary school, I went on many educational field trips (at least 2 per year), including visits to the Science & Industry and Field museums and educational events hosted by the Argonne, Fermilab, and the University of Illinois in Chicago where I grew up. I have also always loved putting together jigsaw puzzles so pursuing in career in scientific research was a natural fit for me.
2) What excites you about your work?
I really like the way we work in teams at the national laboratory. I have a far greater understanding of the research topics that I focus on from working with scientists trained in different disciplines. Together, we are able to come up with novel ways to figure out how things work, that I would certainly never have dreamed of had I worked only with fellow microbiologists.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
The best place to start engaging these groups is in high school when they are thinking seriously about what careers they would like to pursue. Teachers that love and are enthusiastic about the subjects they teach can make a huge impact on these choices. Off-campus trips to see work in action or apply the skills they learn in the classroom to understand the world around them allow students to learn about potential career opportunities that they might not have considered. We need more of both.
4) Do you have tips you would recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Strive to get any work experience that you can before looking for a long-term job. In high school holding any job will help demonstrate that you have a strong work ethic and provide you skills in communication and getting along with others. When you go to college, your classes, especially laboratory classes, will help you get basic skills needed to land an internship at a national laboratory, university, or in industry. Talk to professors that taught classes that you really enjoyed and see if they might have work for you in their laboratory. Be willing to take opportunities that do not involve getting paid, but ensure that they involve hands-on training in research. Sometimes, college credit is an option for unpaid research. These experiences are invaluable towards helping you refine your career choice (is this really what I want to do?) and educational plan (should I go to graduate school and if so what degree should I pursue?).
Once you have landed a job in your career field, you need to establish connections with other scientists, even those with expertise in areas that differ from your own. Tomorrow’s research problems require multi-disciplinary teams to tackle them, and, thus, you benefit from collaborating with scientists with skills and interests that complement your own. Don’t limit yourself to seeking connections with people that you work directly with, but engage in discussions with scientists from other groups or institutions. Also participate in community activities so that you might, by chance, meet someone that is not in your current research network or gives you the opportunity to strike up closer friendships with your colleagues in a more informal setting.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
My favorite season is summer when I can tend to my vegetable and flower garden or simply sit on the deck and play board games with my husband. When the weather cools off and I have time to spare, I like to assemble big jigsaw puzzles and sew. I am always up for going wine tasting and host parties to enjoy with friends from all walks of life.