Where Are They Now? Cool Jobs Alumna Shannon Johnson

johnson_shannon_lab2The last time we spoke to Shannon Johnson, Deep-Sea Research Technician with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), she explained that her job as “like watching the Discovery Channel in real-time.” Shannon applies her background in ecology and zoology to solve the mysteries that surround creatures of the deep sea. We recently caught word that Shannon spent an exciting summer collecting deep-sea samples in the South Pacific, so we sat down with Shannon to find out what her tropical endeavors entailed.

Since it has been over a year since we last spoke, why don’t you update us on how you’ve been staying busy as a deep-sea researcher.

SJ: Well, I’ve been working on a number of things. Right now I am working on publishing a paper that describes five new species of deep-sea snails using only their DNA. It’s not totally ground-breaking science, but it’s definitely a new technique. In the past, people have often described animals using their traits—some birds are described using their song, for example—but we are now using DNA for identification.

Can you talk a little bit about what that process looks like?

Since all of the animals I work with are deep-sea animals, collecting them and sequencing their DNA can be a pretty involved process. It isn’t the easiest thing to collect animals from the deep-sea, as many times they are located miles off shore and in specific areas like hydrothermal vents or whalefalls. Another challenging thing about working in the deep-sea is that there is a ton of crypticism, which means that many animals look the same even though they are, in fact, different species with distinct evolutionary lineages.

Since we are working with a number of different types of animals, there isn’t just one way we go about identifying them. Once we have the DNA extracted, there is a number of genes that we can use to tell them apart. My boss has an awesome analogy to describe genetics: all of the different genes we use is like a set of golf clubs. In golf, sometimes you need a putter to make the shot, and sometimes you need a driver. Similarly, we use a number of different genes to identify different species based on the circumstances.

The hard part about DNA sequencing is knowing that the genes mean once it is sequenced. People say that sequencing DNA is hard, but it’s really not difficult. The difficult part comes in knowing what the DNA means once it is sequenced.

So how do you go about matching the DNA to different species once it is sequenced?

Once we get the DNA information for a species, we run it through a database to see if it matches anything. This process is very similar to what happens when someone’s fingerprint is collected and run through a database to find a match. Identifying these deep-sea snails that we have been working with can be particularly difficult because they are so different: they do different things and live in different types of environments. That’s one thing that makes this paper I’ve been working on so important. We need conventional ways of identifying these species.

So if someone were to ask you why the study of deep-sea creatures like these snails is important, what would you say?

That’s an interesting question. I personally like studying these things because I find them really interesting and really cool. But one of the most interesting things about these snails is the unique way that they speciated. Typically animals will speciate—or evolve from being one species to being different species—because of some some long-term major separation that causes a disruption in gene flow. These separations are often caused by physical things like the presence of a mountain range or a large current. These snail species are different because there are three species that actually live together, and yet they are the most distinct species in the genus. That’s a really rare event, especially in the deep-sea, and it presents a really cool opportunity to test evolutionary hypotheses. So in terms of science, these snails are really interesting.

Photo by Yoshihiro Fujiwara

Photo by Yoshihiro Fujiwara

It’s true that these snails will probably never be seen by people except through the photos we take with our underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). I’m trying to grow awareness of what I’m calling the “punk rock” snails—they live in hot acid, they’re covered in spikes and they have purple blood. They’re a pretty charismatic group, they look cool, and I’m naming one of them after the drummer from The Clash. These snails are also interesting in terms of climate change research because they live in hot acid. Oceans are becoming more acidic with the increase of carbon dioxide in the ocean, so in a climate change perspective, these guys might actually be ok.

Something that you said reminds me of something one of our Cool Jobs meteorologists expressed when he stated that scientists are the modern-day explorers. It seems that your field is very similar to that.

Absolutely. I was not at all interested in marine science as a young person because I thought that scientists had the oceans all figured out. But now I get to discover new species all the time. We literally discover new species every time we go to sea, and we’re not always going to exotic locations. Even when we go out in the Monterey Bay we find not only new species, but new genera and new families even.

Shannon will be traveling the oceans again at the end of this month, so be sure to check back to read all about her experiences at sea.

The Coolest of the Cool (jobs, that is)

We talk a bit about our Cool Jobs campaign that we launched on our websites last fall. While we completely encourage everyone to take an hour, a day, a month to peruse all of these wonderful interviews, we thought that we would take a second to highlight a few of these wonderful professionals. All of these men and women offered incredible wisdom about how they landed their careers and how students might follow in their footsteps. But some of them offered really wonderful life stories and incredible insights into the struggles they faced or the dedication required of them…

And don’t forget that our STEM Works websites offers four different versions of these interviews containing questions aimed specifically for different age groups: Elementary, Middle School, High School, and Undergraduate. So if you really love one of these articles and want to show it to your students, group, or children, be sure to find the version that is best suited for them!

The Animal Kingdom IconAnimal Kingdom

Katrina McCauley always knew she wanted to work with animals, but the journey to becoming a Zookeeper wasn’t easy. McCauley, armed with the educational background and ability to promote herself, broke into zookeeping and has been building her relationship with Colo, the oldest gorilla in a zoo, ever since. Read more to learn how McCauley spends her days as a Zookeeper at the Columbus Zoo! Read article.

Extreme Weather IconExtreme Weather

Lightning struck when Dr. Josh Wurman landed on the Discovery Channel’s reality series Storm Chasers and the IMAX film Forces of Nature.  Dr. Wurman was joined by his colleague Dr. Karen Kosiba to discuss what life is really like as a meteorologist and tornado chaser. A fun fact about this interview is that it was literally conducted while these two storm chasers were en route to a site in their meteorology van.  Read article.

Medical Innovations IconMedical Innovations

After a chance introduction to the field of public health, Allison Brown caught the bug! She passed up medical school to become an epidemiologist and now travels the world for the CDC to solve some of the world’s biggest public health problems. Read on to see why Allison’s interests are contagious! Read article.

Robotics IconRobotics

Robots are not just a thing of science-fiction.  Robots are in places you might not expect, whether they are helping people around the house or traveling to Mars.  We caught up with Dr. Chris Jones, former Director of Research Advancement with iRobot to discuss the power of mentorship, the emerging market for robotics, and even “soft” robots!  Read article.

Space IconSpace

We couldn’t conduct an interview related to space without first going to world-renowned NASA! Luckily, we were able to speak with Carlie Zumwalt, who is one of NASA’s Flight Dynamics Engineers. So what was this girl who works for such a high-profile organization like? She was surprisingly humble, incredibly candid, and wonderfully addicted to hard work. Her article is definitely a must read. Read article.

Under the Sea IconUnder the Sea

Shannon Johnson, Deep-Sea Research Technician with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), described her job as like watching the Discovery Channel in real time. Shannon explores the oceans through the use of ROV’s, or Remote Operated Vehicles, and gets to discover new things about the ocean every day. Oh, and not to mention that her office is in one of the most beautiful coastal areas on the West coast… Read article.

Video Games IconVideo Games

Kelly Murphy, a Video Game Designer for Walt Disney, spends his time balancing tight deadlines for game releases while ensuring Disney games are exciting to play and keep gamers’ coming back for more. Read more to learn what makes a Video Game Designer such a cool jobs here.

Wind Energy IconWind Energy

At first glance this job might not seem very wind related… but it’s more wind related than you might think. After entering a Ph. D. program in aerospace engineering, the current of Jonathan Colby’s career swept him away from aerospace and toward renewable energy. Jonathan now works to turn the flow of New York’s East River into clean, renewable power. Read on to learn how blue water turns into green energy. Read article.

BeakerOther STEM Subjects

Because we are very aware that the wonderful world of STEM includes far more than the subjects above, we feature didn’t limit our interviews to these subjects alone. One of the professionals featured in this section is green chemist Dr. John Warner. Many products in our world today are made with toxic materials. Now, picture a world without toxins – no pollution, no hazardous materials, and no harmful products. Green Chemists, like John Warner PhD, are working to make this dream a reality. Learn what makes Dr. Warner’s work not only important to us, but critical for generations to come. Read article.