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Biotoxin research has Juliette Smith balancing field cruises and family

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AAAS member Juliette Smith works on a Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), a portable, robotic laboratory that tests for algae DNA in seawater, and beams the results back to shore in near real time. (Photo: Mengmeng Tong/WHOI)

As an undergraduate at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, Juliette Smith wondered if something was wrong with her. There were so many interesting subjects. Why did she have to chose just one?

Then a professor gave a lecture about biotoxins—poisonous compounds produced by living organisms like algae. While biotoxins are usually present in fresh and salt water in small quantities, they can turn deadly for marine life and people when algae grows explosively and produces high volumes of toxic material.

Finally, here was a subject that criss-crossed biology, chemistry, physiology, toxicology, ecology, and evolution.

"I thought 'this is it, this is my moment I've been waiting for," Smith said.

She's studied biotoxins ever since. The 36-year-old is as passionate about them today as she was in college. That's in part due to her exuberant personality—she radiates positivity with her ever-present smile—but also because the field is "ever-evolving, interdisciplinary, and applied."

Smith currently works in Don Anderson's toxic algae lab at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). She started out as a postdoc, and an 18-month fellowship grew into a partnership that's lasted more than five years. Her chemical ecology Ph.D. and mass spectrometry skills complements the team of molecular biologists and ecologists. As an interdisciplinary team, they are able to gain a more complete understanding of biotoxins. 

"I am able to take my science to completely different levels I couldn't do by myself," Smith said.

The lab focuses on detecting harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Atlantic Ocean using the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), a portable, robotic laboratory that tests for algae DNA in seawater, and beams the results back to shore in near real time. Smith, working with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collaborators, helped modify WHOI's ESPs to include an assay that measures toxicity. This way they can detect not only how many algae cells are out there, but how toxic they are.

What exactly causes the frequency and intensity of HABs is a matter of current investigation. Many suspect fertilizer runoff into the ocean plays a large role. This upcoming field season, Smith and collaborators plan to test if they can pinpoint the nutrient source fueling harmful algal blooms and toxin production, by looking at the isotopic signature of nitrogen in the toxin. Other researchers used the ratio of heavy to light nitrogen atoms in the toxin to identify the source, such as fertilizer, septic or animal waste, but only in the lab and for one strain of one organism. (Read the study, PDF.)

Smith plans to take that proof of concept and "blow it up" by attempting to identify a wider variety of fuel sources for multiple organisms both in the lab and in the ocean.

In the future, she plans to compare ESP readings and toxin measurements in shellfish beds to see if there is a correlation.

If so, the ESP could serve as an early warning system, alerting state and federal shellfish managers to increase monitoring and fishermen to harvest before a bloom hits. Elevated toxicity can require the shellfish to stay in the water for weeks and up to months, until the toxin leaves their tissues.

In July, Smith will become an assistant professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS). She is excited to combine her fresh water and marine experiences and study biotoxins on a watershed scale that spans both environments. 

"VIMS is not only awesome because my interests align with their research mission," Smith said, \"it also seems like it might be the best chance for me to find balance.

Balance is something that had eluded the self-described workaholic for most of her professional life. So invested in her research, she'd work late and most weekends.

"I was a little neurotic," she said.

And so satisfied by her work, Smith said having kids hadn't crossed her mind until she and her husband of nine years decided "right then and there" to start a family. She has two daughters who are one- and three-years-old. 

While Smith still wanted a thriving career, she also wanted time with her family. So four days a week, she goes to a job that she loves, and three days a week, she is a stay-at-home mom. Experiments and field cruises now have to fit around her family schedule.

"It's definitely an ever-learning process," Smith said. "I don't feel like I will ever have it down, but you have be willing to go with it and be forgiving of yourself."

Her husband, Gary Smith, a scientist-turned-real-estate-agent, can work from home and helps care for their children part of the week.

"He is absolutely a best friend and supportive," Smith said. "He helps keep me in check. If I become too work-driven again, he will remind me of my priorities."

Her boss was also very supportive of her decision. Smith encouraged other women and men interested in having children and science careers to go for it.

"Make your own rules," she said. "Be very creative in what you define as your balance."