Erica’s foray into science didn’t specifically begin with microbiology. Her father worked at NASA and while accompanying him to work on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” every year, she’s tried all sorts of things, even astronaut ice cream. She’s read a lot about science and her interest grew. “The Hot Zone especially scared the bejeezus out of me but was also fascinating,” she recalls. She grew up near Reston, Virginia, where Reston Virus (causes Ebola symptoms in non-human primates) was discovered. While she was in high school, she closely followed the race to sequence the human genome. “It felt hugely important and revolutionary, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Erica says.
Name: Dr. Erica Marie Hartmann
Job title: Assistant Professor
Institution: Northwestern University; Evanston, IL, USA
In a biology class at Johns Hopkins, she learned about how microbes can be used to break down environmental pollutants in a process called bioremediation. Shortly after, she interned in Rolf Halden’s lab doing research on that very subject and was later the first student to finish with a Ph.D. in a new interdisciplinary program called Biological Design at Arizona State University. After postdoc positions at the Commission for Atomic Energy in southern France and at the University of Oregon, and three faculty job application cycles, she landed a faculty position at Northwestern University. For many scientists seeking the academic route, the journey can be full of twists and turns where opportunity strikes when you’d least expect. In Erica’s case, she found her second postdoc position networking in the shadows of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Erica says, “I guess the moral of my story is that the path to my current position involved a lot of preparation and no small amount of chance.”
Erica studies the interaction between microbes and anthropogenic chemicals. While many microbial ecologists focus on microbes in nature, Erica has her eye on microbes indoors. With the recent anxiety over antibiotic resistance, she wondered about the potential contribution of antimicrobial chemicals to the spread of antibiotic resistance. To study this, she turned to public restrooms. We instinctively try to disinfect restrooms, but does this really have any benefit? Are our efforts to kill microbes actually making them evolve resistance to antimicrobials? For a more in-depth view into this project, head over to The Conversation for a piece written by Erica herself.
Returning to her roots in microbiology, she is also continuing to study bioremediation. She aims to find new microbes that can break down environmental pollutants. After identifying these microbes, she plans to engineer them to be more efficient.
As a whole, her lab contributes articles to Wikipedia. Editing Wikipedia is a great way for outreach because of its ease and flexibility. Erica says, “editing Wikipedia doesn’t take a lot of preparation or training, and you can do it whenever. And since people around the world read Wikipedia, the potential impact is enormous.”
Erica’s enthusiasm for microbiology extends beyond the scope of her lab’s work. Microbes are so unique and adaptable. Erica says, “I love how microbes keep rewriting the rules. Archaea, bacteria, and viruses are just so weird, and there’s so much more to discover about them!”
Erica’s microbial doppelgänger: Bacillus subtilis
Bacillus subtilis is a well-studied spore-former. Erica chose B. subtilis because she loves to sleep and forming spores is like sleep, right? In addition to sleep, Erica’s love of fermented foods has led her to appreciate B. subtilis for its role in fermenting soybeans into natto.
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