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Kerry McPhail

Science/Data Team, On Shore Scientist
Oregon State University

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

I focus on the discovery of natural product compounds that could be used in research to understand or even treat cancers or infectious diseases. Rare or unique organisms, such as those found at methane seeps or in other unusual environments are a good place to look for new types of natural product molecules that inhibit cancers, harmful bacteria, fungi or viruses. My research group has collected marine organisms while SCUBA diving in places like Panama, the Red Sea and South Africa. We have also collected samples using the Alvin submersible from deep-sea hydrothermal vents off the Oregon/Washington coast. However, this type of research really requires spending 90% of the time in an analytical chemistry laboratory doing chromatography to purify single natural product compounds out of the complex mixtures extracted from the samples collected, guided by biological testing against cancer or microbial cells. We then use mass spectrometry and other spectroscopic techniques to work out the molecular structures of pure natural product compounds with interesting biological activities.

What sparked your initial interest in your career?

As a first-year undergraduate at Rhodes University, South Africa, I started SCUBA diving and became enthralled with the incredible diversity of the rocky shores and reefs in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, even if the water was often a little cold and gloomy. The diversity and density of soft corals, tunicates and small sea slugs in particular was staggering, and I loved to go diving and look for them on weekends. After starting second-year undergraduate classes in Zoology and Biochemistry, I quickly realized that I was not motivated to memorize endless biochemical pathways for Biochemistry, so I switched to Chemistry and met a professor whose research was in marine natural products chemistry - isolating and describing new kinds of molecules from marine organisms.

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

My new chemistry teacher in Grade 11 introduced herself to us by saying that everything we thought we knew about atoms and molecules up to that point was not actually true. She really had us 'hooked' with the way she said that. Every class with her after that was a grand adventure in learning that there is much more than meets the eye - literally! Where is the edge of that table actually? Then, when I was an undergraduate at university a professor of marine biology gave me the opportunity to work on rocky shore ecology in his lab for my Honors thesis.

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

The most fascinating thing I have done really has to be going down a mile in the ocean, into the caldera of Axial Volcano on the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Alvin submersible (dive number 4520 in 2009) and seeing tube worms, black smokers and giant spider crabs. It was hard to believe that I was still on Earth!

What other jobs led you to your current career?

Although not entirely planned, every main job I had was a direct stepping stone on the way to my current position. Even my side job as a fitness instructor helped with confidence and communication skills!

What are your degrees and certifications?

Bachelor of Science Honors Degree in Chemistry and Marine Biology - Rhodes University, South Africa, 1996; Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Marine Natural Products Chemistry - Rhodes University, South Africa, 2001.

What are your hobbies?

I used to hike/run daily in nearby Oregon forests with my dogs. Now after moving house I can kayak and bird-watch daily on the beautiful, clear South Santiam River!

How did you get involved with the Ocean Exploration Trust?

Dr. Andrew Thurber asked me to collaborate when NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research announced a request for proposals for 'ocean exploration to address knowledge gaps and support growth in the nation’s Blue Economy', with one priority being discovery of biopharmaceutical potential. We applied and were successful in obtaining funding!

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

With a strong foundation in the basic sciences, you can work at the interface of multiple scientific disciplines. Collaborative, cross-disciplinary research dramatically enhances and accelerates scientific discovery. My advice is not to 'specialize' in any one set of skills, or even research field, too early. Take time to learn what truly interests you.


Kerry participated in the following Ocean Exploration Trust expeditions: