Meet Santiago Herrera

Meet Santiago Herrera

What is your job title?
Graduate student at the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Biological Oceanography.

What do you study and why is it important?
I study aspects of the evolution and ecology of deep-sea organisms that live in seamounts and chemosynthetic environments (such as hydrothermal vents and cold seeps). I employ molecular techniques to detect and analyze patterns of genomic variability across individuals within populations and also among species. This work is important because it does not only provide fundamental information about how much biological diversity occurs in these remote ecosystems and how it originated, but it also gives us tools to for assessing and minimizing the impacts of disruptive human activities.

What is your role on this voyage?
I am part of the biology team. We will be obtaining images and samples of the animals that live in the Kermadec underwater volcanoes to determine their abundances and distributions.

What do you hope to learn/discover on this voyage?
I have never been in this part of the world before, so everything we observe will be new for me. I hope to learn a lot about the kinds of animals that live in these seamounts and also the environmental conditions that might limit their particular distributions.

Where were you educated?
I finished two undergraduate programs, Biology and Microbiology, in 2007 at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Then I obtained a master’s degree in Biological Sciences from that same university in 2009. Currently I am a PhD student of Biological Oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program.

How did you become interested in the ocean?
Everything started when I was still a little kid. Although I grew up in a big city in the mountains and far away of the ocean, I was always fascinated by the images of marine animals that I found in books. I kept fuelling my interest over the years through movies and, of course, trips to sea. I was also very lucky to have very supportive parents and fantastic professors that encouraged me to pursue my dreams.

How did you become a marine scientist?
I started by obtaining a solid background in general biology as well as in basic sciences like mathematics, physics and chemistry. Then I focused in learning how to use and apply a number of molecular techniques in order to solve the questions that most intrigued me. Along the way I found my niche in the hard to study but incredibly interesting deep-sea ecosystems.

What would you be doing if you were not a marine scientist?
I would probably be a doctor of medicine, just like my father. I really admire the work he does.

What do you enjoy about your job?
I enjoy the constant excitement of entering new ground; studying things that no one has observed or thought of before. I also feel very privileged of being able to visit extremely remote and unexplored places.

What has been your most exciting discovery?
A couple of colleagues and I recently found and described a new species of deep-sea coral. The bubblegum coral with cauliflower-shaped microskeleton structures Sibogagorgia cauliflora.

What are some challenges you face?
As many other people, I find it challenging to keep up with all the responsibilities and compromises that I have in my research, academic and personal life. Sometimes it feels that there is never a good time for a break. However, at the same time science is an extremely rewarding and motivating activity; the key is to find a good balance.

Do you get seasick and do you have any tips for dealing with it?
I have not been seasick yet… knocking on wood. But, the common believe is that things like ginger and pressure wristbands help a lot. I hope I never have to find out!

What do you like to do in your spare time?
I enjoy scuba diving, tramping, biking, football matches, loud music and good books.

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