Biology-enthusiast uses ORISE program to continue research at national laboratory

Karen Simmons
As a participant in the U.S. Department of Energy Carlsbad Field Office Fellowship Program, Karen Simmons has been able to continue her research on characterizing microorganisms collected from a salt dome near Los Alamos National Laboratory. Some microorganisms are capable of surviving at extremely high salt concentrations, so her research is helping determine how these microorganisms might interact with substances in the environment.

Although the realization that her time as a researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in Carlsbad, N.M., was coming to a close crept up on Karen Simmons, her interest and enthusiasm in her microbiology project was far from dwindling. Biology, after all, was a passion born from her childhood.

"My parents had optical and stereo microscopes when I was growing up, and I enjoyed looking at a variety of objects under them," she recalled. "Microorganisms affect every area of our lives, from health to industry to the environment. As I started to realize how many microorganisms there are in the world and how big of an impact they have, I was excited to be able to study them."

With a bachelor's degree in biology from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Simmons applied and was accepted to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Carlsbad Field Office Fellowship Program, which allowed her to continue studying at the lab and learning about microorganisms. The program allows students to conduct mission-oriented research in DOE's CBFO in Carlsbad, NM. It is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, which is managed by ORAU for DOE.

At LANL, Simmons characterizes microorganisms from a nearby salt dome and its overlying groundwater. Specifically, her research focuses on a Transuranic (TRU) waste repository where the salt dome is located. This repository was specifically chosen because of the effectiveness in preventing the waste from escaping, she noted.

"We want to know how the microbes will interact with the waste in the repository and how they would potentially affect the waste if the repository was ever breached and the waste escaped into the surrounding environment, including the groundwater," she said.

Although high-salt environments are uninhabitable for most organisms because of the low water availability, a specialized set of microbes known as halophiles are able to survive the harsh conditions. Simmons incubates these halophiles under varying conditions at LANL and monitors their subsequent growth.

"Some of the experiments subject the halophiles to conditions similar to those in the repository, and others try to find out what the organisms do in a more ideal environment. This helps with developing models and scenarios that are required for regulatory purposes," she said.

One of the goals is to see how the halophiles affect the solubility of the radioactive substances. This, in turn, helps determine how far escaped nuclear waste could potentially travel.

Simmons has been working on the project since 2010, following her graduation from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and has gained technical knowledge and skills in observation and analysis. She learns more about the microbes each day, and doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon. Like all science, it takes time to understand the whys and hows.

"I didn't realize that some microorganisms grew so slowly," she said. "Some of our cultures have taken months or a year to show detectable growth. We are continuing to explore the potential of microorganisms that should be capable of various metabolic processes."