Smallest in the Forest

Rutgers graduate student Aspa Chatziefthimiou loves the woods—and microbes—and she’s found a quiet way to share her excitement with visitors to a very old forest.

Forest Teller

After a childhood spent among the dry pine groves of the Mediterranean, Aspa was amazed by the leafy green forest of North America when she came here at age 18.

Now one of her daily highlights is a walk through the woods near her home with her dog, Starr. “I love it. When you go into the forest, you’re going back to where you belong. I go to meditate,” says Aspa, a doctoral student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

So when Peter Morin, director of Rutgers’ Hutcheson Memorial Forest, was recruiting students as tour guides to that virgin forest, Aspa was quick to sign up.

Soil Sampler

Aspa grew up in Athens, Greece, and came to the United States to attend college. New Jersey was her destination: she had an aunt here.

While working on her bachelor’s degree at Montclair State University, she became fascinated by a world just out of sight: the microbes that, without any exaggeration, keep us all alive.

“Microbes are everywhere. It’s fantastic. We breathe because of them. We live because of them. They recycle everything. They keep our earth moving,” says Aspa, who also teaches microbiology courses.

She wanted to study more about microbes and learn their secrets. Her natural choice, pardon the pun, was Rutgers.

“Rutgers is the place to be. There’s a strong track record here on studying soil microorganisms,” Aspa says.

In Aspa’s case, under Professor Tamar Barkay in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, she collects soil samples contaminated with mercury and studies the microorganisms that can detoxify the element:

“I really get a kick out of studying how bacteria with a certain gene can change one form of mercury to the less toxic elemental form. And I think the research could really help develop some useful applications someday, such as bioremediation of contaminated sites.”

Guide on a Mission

Aspa ChatziefthimiouPublic tours of the Hutcheson Memorial Forest each have a theme. The theme of Aspa’s? You guessed it: microbes.

As they walk softly through one of the Mid-Atlantic’s last undisturbed patches of forest, visitors learn about microbes’ role in breaking down organic matter and replenishing the soil.

“Most people think of microbes as pathogens that make people sick. This is not the truth. That’s only about 1% of these types of organisms. I want to help people see them from a different perspective. Bacteria recycle the elements. They live in places we can’t,” Aspa says.

Her hope is that people will consider these microscopic creatures with new respect and share her appreciation of their silent work:  “Microbes are just marvelous. I live in awe of microbes and what they can do. I am humbled by these one-celled organisms.”