Daan Speth headshot photo

Daan Speth

Science/Data Team
California Institute of Technology

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

I'm interested in the life you (mostly) can't see with the naked eye. It is fascinating to me that life so small manages to survive in places where 'more sophisticated' lifeforms have no chance. Microorganisms are everywhere and we have only just scratched the surface in our understanding of what they can do. I try to use laboratory enrichment and cultivation, combined with directly reading the genetic blueprint of organisms from the environment, to get a better understanding how microbes make a living.

What sparked your initial interest in your career?

In college, we went out to a drainage ditch and collected some mud from a drainage ditch. We used this mud to grow some of the microbes in the lab. Some of the microbes we got were new species! Then, the notion that you can go out into your backyard and discover a new species was mindbending and strongly appealed to my desire to explore. Now that I know there probably are billions (or even trillions) of species, finding the ones that are really special is the challenge.

Who influenced you or encouraged the most?

I have always enjoyed biology, and starting in college I thought plant biology was incredibly interesting. It was only in the environmental microbiology lectures that I realized how much more interesting biology the microbial world has to offer!

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

Life never stops surprising you and, more often than not, is amazingly beautiful.

What other jobs led you to your current career?

My career so far has been pretty straightforward: Masters and Doctorate at the same university, and then on to a Postdoc at Caltech. When I started grad school, my lab had just bought a DNA sequencer, and someone needed to do all the data analysis. Along the way, I became a bioinformatician, which has been very useful. 

What are your degrees and certifications?

Master of Science in Biology -- Radboud University Nijmegen (NL) 2011,
Ph.D. -- Radboud University Nijmegen (NL) 2015

What are your hobbies?

I play rugby, ride a motorcycle, and generally enjoy being outdoors. I love the feeling of exploring roads less traveled, and occasionally try my hand at offroading with my bike or my car. Indoors, I enjoy scotch, board games, reading books in general, and comics specifically.

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

There's always a mix of luck and skill in moving forward in your career, but you can help your luck along by being proactive. When I had about a year left in grad school, wrote a number of leading labs in Southern California asking if I could come visit to discuss job opportunities, since I'd be in the area for a conference. All but one told me I was welcome to swing by, so I rented a motorbike and combined business and pleasure for a tour of SoCal. Got a job, and here we are!

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

My fieldwork during grad school mostly consisted of a 45-minute drive to a wastewater treatment plant. Although the microbiology there was fantastic, the site itself was somewhat underwhelming. When I joined Victoria Orphan's lab, one of the exciting prospects was joining a research cruise. I've worked on analyzing samples obtained from a previous cruise in the Gulf of California, and am excited to get to see the site up close! 


Daan participated in the following Ocean Exploration Trust expeditions: