The Team

Ship Location

Channel Islands, USA

Rebecca Wipfler

Photo of Rebecca Wipfler
Ocean Science Intern
Undergraduate
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Tell us about your work / research. What kinds of things do you do?

As an undergraduate researcher, I study a thermophilic archaeon called Sulfolobus islandicus. This microorganism lives in thermal springs around the world, including Yellowstone National Park and Russia. My specific research project focuses on studying the surface layer of this microbe. Part of this research involves field studies to Yellowstone, where I help collect biological specimens from remote hot springs from around the park. In the lab, I study this organism under different environmental stresses to determine the function of its surface layer. I also use various forms of microscopy such as transmission electron microscopy, light microscopy, and fluorescence microscopy to characterize this organism.

What sparked your initial interest in your career?

Since I was young, science has been my favorite subject, but I didn’t know how to follow this interest until the summer before I started college. During this time, I completed an internship at a federal laboratory, the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR). This is when I realized biological research was something I wanted to pursue, but I didn’t know in what field. When I started at my university, I joined Dr. Rachel Whitaker at a NASA Astrobiology Institute to study an extremophilic microbe. I’ve always had an interest in life forms living in extreme and remote environments from watching nature documentaries and reading about expeditions in science magazines. I’ve loved and learned something every single day in this lab, and I’m very excited to continue to explore the world of extremophiles through programs such as the Nautilus Ocean Science Internship. 

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

I would like to thank Dr. Martha Vaughan for having the greatest influence on my professional career. A research scientist at NCAUR, I had the extreme pleasure to work with her on a project studying toxins produced by crop fungi over the summer of 2015. Her passion and dedication to her work is contagious, and she was the first to express support for me to pursue a Ph.D. She showed me firsthand how science has the ability to make the world a better place and the importance of collaboration between scientists. 

What element of your work / study do you think is the most fascinating?

One of my favorite parts of my research is the field studies in Yellowstone National Park. There's nothing like hiking out into the wilderness to capture (potentially new and undiscovered) specimens from the source. I also really enjoy how my research relates to the field of astrobiology, as understanding the limits of life on Earth will further our understanding of life elsewhere in the universe.

What other jobs led you to your current career?

My various research experiences have led to me where I am now. I’ve done separate research internships at the NCAUR studying the synergistic effects of mycotoxins produced by fungus and at the Mayo Clinic studying neuroregeneration of the enteric nervous system. Throughout I’ve been working at my university studying the surface layer of a thermophilic archaeon. I’ve learned something different from each experience that I would not have been able to learn anywhere else. With two more years of undergraduate school to go, I feel confident that research is the place for me and I’ll be drawing on my experiences to guide my future education and career decisions.  

What are your degrees and certifications?

Planned Bachelor of Science in Molecular and Cellular Biology - the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign –2019; PADI Open Water Diver 

What are your hobbies?

At my university, I play the bells at the Altgeld Chime Tower on campus and am part of an intramural soccer team. In my free time, I take naps and watch Sherlock or Batman and Robin. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career like yours?

If you want to do research as an undergraduate, join a lab where you’ll have the opportunity to have your own research project in a field you are or potentially may be interested in. Don’t just rely on your classes for education; summer internships and the internet are great sources to learn about the world around you. And throughout, always be open to sharing your passion with others and sticking to what you enjoy most, as I’ve always believed you are happiest when doing something you love.

How did you get involved with the Nautilus Exploration Program? How did you get on the ship?

I was looking up videos on hydrothermal vents, a location where extremophiles can be found and found a video recorded by the Nautilus. I followed the video back to the source, the Nautilus home web page, and began regularly watching their live-streamed dives. I signed up for their email newsletters to stay up to date on their missions, and one of these emails mentioned the Nautilus Science and Engineering Internship Program. I realized the possibility to participate in oceanic field research was something I would enjoy, and I applied.