kira mizell headshot

Kira Mizell

Scientist Ashore
Research Oceanographer
US Geological Survey

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

I study minerals that form in the deep ocean, especially focusing on ferromanganese crusts, manganese nodules, and phosphorites. The chemical composition of these deposits reveals information about ocean chemistry from the past, as far as 70 million years ago for the oldest ferromanganese crust deposits that have been scavenging elements from seawater during their extremely slow precipitation. Each of these mineral types are also enriched in rare and/or valuable metals to varying degrees, and they are therefore being analyzed for their potential as a mineral resource, especially to support advancing computer and green technologies. I work to determine the distribution of deep sea minerals; the consistency of their composition in different regions, oceanographic settings, and water depths; and their formation mechanisms, in order to better understand where deposits of interest for scientific study or potential mineral resources can be found. I also investigate the relationship of different metal enrichments to the co-located biological communities, utilizing a multidisciplinary approach to holistically examine marine mineral and concomitant ecosystem resources, in order to inform decisions about their valuation and potential exploitation. I am lucky that my research requires me to work in multiple fun settings: in the lab taking different geochemical measurements, in the office performing data analyses and writing up results, and on research vessels during expeditions to many places in the global oceans to view and collect mineral samples on the seafloor.

What sparked your initial interest in your career?

When I was a kid, I loved science, and I wanted to be a medical doctor because that was the best way I understood how to use science in my career and make a positive impact on the world. When I was in college studying as a pre-med student with a biochemistry major, I realized I still loved science, but becoming a doctor was not making me as excited as it used to. I asked my advisor if I could do my senior thesis in another department as long as it still incorporated biology and chemistry, and they agreed. I contacted a professor in the Environmental Sciences department and did my thesis on mineral-metal-biological interactions during mine tailing remediation experiments. I was totally hooked on earth science after that! After graduating from college, I eventually got a position as a laboratory technician for a group at USGS that studied deep ocean mineral deposits, which was new to me, but I found it fascinating and realized it was a field of science with a lot of remaining unanswered questions. From there, I worked my way up to getting my PhD to continue studying marine minerals.

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

The professor at my undergraduate University who invited me to do my senior thesis in his lab was very kind, inclusive, and encouraging, and inspired me to be open minded to all different avenues of science. A PhD student in that lab also took me under her wing and was an amazing role-model of how to be confident and independent while working as a young woman in earth science. My mentor at USGS also encouraged me to get my PhD and to pursue a research career at USGS through a good mixture of challenging me, giving me guidance, and generously sharing new research ideas and opportunities.

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

Getting to think on time-scales of millions of years is fascinating. It's incredible to dream up possibilities for how a rock was forming long ago and imagine what the climate and the oceans were like at that time to influence that rock. I get to tell the long and complicated story for the life of each rock I examine and put that in the context of modern human society well!

What other jobs led you to your current career?

Working as a lab assistant during my undergraduate studies, as well as doing an undergraduate research thesis, gave me the experience that I needed to qualify for a physical science technician position at USGS. Gaining analytical expertise and data analysis skills, and contributing to scientific publications as a technician prepared me for my PhD studies. Teaching and outreach positions throughout my undergraduate studies and a technical writing job during my pre-graduate, early-career days also greatly helped my science communication skills including how to explain my ideas and findings in both oral presentations and written reports.

What are your degrees and certifications?

Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry -- University of Arizona 2009; Ph.D. in Ocean Sciences -- University of California, Santa Cruz -- 2019

What are your hobbies?

I love hiking, beach volleyball, mountain biking, backpacking, fishing, kayaking, rock climbing (when it's not too scary), all the usual outdoors activities. I am always down for a dance party, and I enjoy hunting for good second-hand fashion finds.

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

Be reliable and diligent; keep your mind open to lots of different topics, career paths, and colleagues; take risks outside your comfort zone that can teach you news skills and expose you to new things (ship-board research originally kind of scared me, but it's enriched my life and career); push past unwarranted self-doubt; ask questions and be engaged; maintain relationships with people you've enjoyed learning from and working with; take the time and the detours you need on your career path (I didn't go to grad school until I was 28, for example); have fun and encourage others so you have friends along the way!

How did you get involved with the Ocean Exploration Trust?

I met the lead scientist through my mentor at USGS, and the two of them have seen each other at deep-sea conferences and events throughout their careers.

Selected Publications


Orcutt B, K Mizell, A Gartman, C Kelley, R Kosaki, N Raineault (2022). Microbial ecosystem services and associates with ferromanganese crusts on seamounts of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument: Initail Results. 2022 Ocean Sciences Meeting