Sarah Wolf: Meeting God in the Micro
Sarah's passion for knowing God through her work is exemplified through her dedication to environmental microbiology and desire to be a faith-filled role model for young, budding scientists.
Sarah Wolf is a PhD candidate studying marine microbiology at Oregon State University. Her research focuses on the role of marine microorganisms in coastal ocean deoxygenation.
What sparked your interest in science and how did you select microbiology?
I always enjoyed the life sciences as a young girl but I didn’t know any scientists growing up. I’m a first generation college student and the people I knew who studied science in college were medical doctors. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to send me to a college preparatory Catholic high school, where I was encouraged to follow my interests when I went to college. I’ve had a nontraditional path to microbiology. I started my undergraduate degree as a political science major who was taking science classes like general biology and chemistry, because I enjoyed the science.
When I was a junior in college, I took a microbiology course at the University of the Virgin Islands where I was able to participate in marine fieldwork and present my research at a scientific conference. I grew up playing in tidepools at Dillon Beach on the north coast of California so studying the sea was nostalgic and gave me a sense of home when I was so far away. My research involvement at UVI was a game changer for me. I craved more science than a political science major could offer. I ended up changing my major to microbiology and transferred universities. My next research experience was interning with the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I studied the bacteria that survive cleanroom facilities where spacecraft are assembled and that solidified my interest in environmental microbiology.
Can you tell me about your specific area of study and how are you working to increase the resilience of marine ecosystems?
I study marine microbiology at Oregon State University, which offers me a unique position to explore the biogeochemistry of low oxygen regions of the ocean, due to their chronic persistence on the Pacific Northwest coast.1 While the Oregon coast has naturally occurring low oxygen regions, anthropogenic climate change (i.e. warming waters, increased stratification) has exacerbated and accelerated ecosystem transformations. Currently, these regions make up approximately 8% of the world’s oceans and are predicted to increase in coming years.
Low oxygen regions of the ocean, called oxygen minimum zones (OMZs) threaten marine biodiversity, local fishing and tourism economies. While these regions are chronic on our coasts, patterns of deoxygenation are difficult to predict. My research focuses on how microbial physiology influences OMZs, and will fill a pronounced knowledge gap of the mechanisms of formation and expansion of oxygen-deplete regions. Much of my time is spent working on mesocosm experiments where I collect seawater from the coast and bring it back to the lab where I have designed a system to simulate low oxygen conditions. Here, I am able to test hypotheses about the response of bacteria to fluctuations in oxygen. With this information, I hope to improve global climate modeling to better predict the formation and expansion of OMZs.
When most people think of marine biology, they think of cute animals like dolphins, but you study organisms too small to see with the human eye. What makes microorganisms so important in our global oceans?
While I love the charismatic creatures of the ocean, I have a soft spot for the teensy organisms that live in marine environments and can only be seen under a microscope. Marine systems have an abundance of microscopic bacteria, fungi, algae, plankton, and viruses.2
The ocean covers more than 70% of Earth’s surface and in each drop of seawater there are 1 million bacterial cells. So while these cells are TINY, there are SO many of them. Microorganisms make up ~70% of the biomass in the world’s oceans, supply more than half the world’s oxygen, and play a major role in the global carbon cycle.3
Did you encounter the “conflict narrative” growing up in school or church?
The schools and churches I attended growing up encouraged scientific exploration but I was never explicitly exposed to the idea that science can be a way of knowing God. So while I didn’t encounter the “conflict narrative” of religion and science in my own community, popular culture does lend to this pervasive dichotomy.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school and encountered two environmental science professors who were also parishioners at my church that I started to really understand my path in microbiology as a vocation. These scientists started conversations at our parish surrounding Pope Francis’ encyclical focused on the climate crisis, Laudato Si. Questions I had about environmentalism, my faith, the natural world, started to merge, and things made much more sense when I started to look at the world through the lens of “integral ecology,” which Pope Francis defines as the interconnectedness of environmental, economic, political, social, cultural and ethical issues.4
I’ve always been completely amazed by the capabilities of microscopic life but it was such an awakening when I started to see the biochemical pathways and the sophisticated survival strategies of bacteria I encounter daily as a way of knowing God. My religion tells me who created the universe, my science tells me how he did it.
You have made science communication to young audiences your passion project. Can you explain why this is important to you?
Increasing exposure and access to research science sets my soul on fire! I didn’t know about research careers growing up, or how scientists can use discovery and curiosity as a way of getting to know the Lord. I learned a lot about the scientific method and antiquated theories in my biology courses but I wasn’t exposed to the incredible technology that scientists are actively using. This is exciting, irresistible stuff when people learn more! When young people see the application of science and technology to issues they care about, such as climate change or infectious disease, that can open doors for a passionate and fulfilling career.
Before graduate school, I worked in the outreach and communication space, so marrying my skills in communication with my excitement for science seemed like a natural thing to do. It brings me joy to share the good news of the Lord’s creation, the scientific aptitude he’s gifted people throughout history with, and hope for the future despite present-day suffering. The world needs more good news.
What would you say to any young Christian people that are interested in pursuing environmental sciences?
The best part about faith and getting to know God is that it’s a journey! We will never know everything (that’s the beauty of divine mystery) but I would advise anyone to stay curious. Start by recognizing God in the physical world, be a steward to what he’s gifted you, and study the thoughts of saints and theologians that have pondered this topic for years.
In science, we often say we “stand on the shoulders of giants,” meaning my science will build on the discoveries of the folks that came before me. That’s how science progresses. And I feel the same way about my faith journey, I can stand on the shoulders of great thinkers, be contemplative myself, which will lead me to serving Christ in action through my vocation.
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About the authors
Sarah S. Wolf
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