Studying the sea and its inhabitants crosses many disciplines and has yielded discoveries that have improved human health. Among the scientists who are conducting ocean-related research are some of PLNU’s own.

To explore the unexplored, to probe the depths of the sea, and to find the yet undiscovered — these are the calls answered by Walter Cho, Ph.D. Cho is a deep-sea biologist, and his work takes him to places never before seen by human eyes. He is there to discover, quantify, and characterize what he finds. But not only has Cho found life at the bottom of the sea, he has found that God is there, too. Cho says being in the ocean reminds him of Psalm 139.

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” — Psalm 139:7-10

Walter Cho, Ph.D., is a PLNU professor who focuces on biodiversity and biogeography in his research. He knows that not all of his students will go on to become marine biologists, but he still exposes even the students in his general education classes to the intertidal zone near PLNU.

The first time I went down in a submarine, it was a three-[person] scientific submersible called Alvin,” Cho said. “We went down 1,500 meters to study a hydrothermal vent community. The experience was overwhelming.”

Cho saw the beauty and intricacy of God’s creation, and that continues to affect him even as his deep-sea experience has increased.

“My own spirituality has been impacted by the vastness of the ocean,” he said.

Biodiversity and biogeography are the main focuses of Cho’s research. Because many areas of the deep ocean haven’t been well studied, Cho is among the first scientists to uncover which species live in specific areas and why they live there.

“Using genetic data, we can look at the relationship between different species and populations. We can understand their distribution and what influences them — it may be currents, something in their life history, reproductive behavior, or interactions with other organisms.”

“No matter how seemingly small and insignificant I may be, what’s more overwhelming is that God has called me, that He has a relationship with me, and that He has created this amazing environment of biodiversity.”

Cho also uses imagery and video to identify organisms for community-level analysis. The imagery is often gathered from submarines, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Because these vehicles can cover a wide area, they are an important data source.

Cho has had an active research program at PLNU since 2012, and he especially enjoys involving students in undergraduate research. In fact, his own interest in marine biology was fueled by research he did as an undergraduate student at Harvard.

“Undergrads can learn so much and do so much here,” he said of PLNU.

In November and December of 2017, Cho went on a research cruise to the Mata Volcanoes in the Kingdom of Tonga. The Mata Volcanoes are a series of underwater volcanoes, which were first filmed erupting underwater in 2009. Cho joined a science team that returned there in 2017 to try to understand the connection between the geologic events in the area, the chemistry of the location’s seawater, and the biodiversity there. Their mission included experts in biology (Cho), chemistry (scientists from the NOAA), and geology (scientists from the University of Hawaii, the NOAA, and GNS Science). Their goal was to have a well-integrated team that would study all aspects of the communities forming and changing around the volcanoes. “Oceanography is very interdisciplinary,” Cho said.

“One goal is to convey awe of God’s creation and the love He has for us to create such an intricate world.”

While they were there, they discovered new hydrothermal vent communities. Now, they are analyzing the data.

“I’m studying two species, shrimp and gastropods — basically big, hairy snails,” Cho said.

PLNU students are helping with the data analysis. Students worked on a subset of the samples collected, sequencing the samples’ DNA and analyzing data in the lab. Cho knows not all of his students will go on to become marine biologists, but he still exposes even the students in his general education classes to the intertidal zone near PLNU.

"It was life changing for me and how I view science. It was a total God thing [for me to be at PLNU] with things falling into place at the right time." - Hannah Lee (19)

Hannah Lee (19) was one of the students impacted by learning from Cho. Like Cho, she ended up finding a passion for ocean science while she was an undergrad. Lee had  grown up visiting Monterey Bay Aquarium and had always had an interest in the ocean. But it was in college, when she had the opportunity to participate in summer research with Cho that she found a passion for marine biology. Lee completed two years of molecular marine biology research with Cho, studying two different pencil urchins found off the coast of Panama. She also took all of his marine science courses and was a teaching assistant for oceanography. Lee was grateful to be at  a university that was both Christian and committed to science — and especially science with an environmental focus.

“It was life changing for me and how I view science,” Lee said. “It was a total God thing [for me to be at PLNU] with things falling into place at the right time.”

Now, Lee is in a biology master’s degree program at Humboldt State  where  she is studying organisms called bryozoans. Working with Sean Craig, Ph.D., and collaborating with a research lab in Norway, which will handle the genetic sequencing of their samples, Lee is helping understand the bryozoans in the rocky intertidal zones of the Pacific Northwest. When she finishes her program, she hopes to continue research but also wants to help bridge the communication gaps between the general public, scientists, and policy makers when it comes to understanding the ocean.

"Looking at the unique aspects of every system inspires me to keep working and keep discovering new things. The work that that I do in marine natural products has so many diverse applications." - Taylor Steele (17)

Because marine science is so interdisciplinary, biology and environmental science are not the only entry points to ocean research.

Taylor Steele (17) is a Ph.D. student in chemistry at UCSD and works in a marine natural products lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Marine natural products chemistry connects molecules to genes and genes to molecules — all from organisms in the ocean. “I was a biology-chemistry major at PLNU,” Steele said. “When I was looking at grad schools, I reached out to Brad [Moore, Ph.D.], my P.I. [primary investigator] and found a love for the work he does.”

Steel’s project is focused on  algal genomics with the hope of gaining a better understanding of the rich biochemistry of seaweeds. According to a proposal from the Moore lab, information gained from these seaweeds will further inform and enable their use as a source of materials for biocatalysts, biofuels, bio-based chemical feedstocks, and other products.

“Looking at the unique aspects of every system inspires me to keep working and keep discovering new things,” she said. “The work that I do in marine natural products has so many diverse applications.”

Steele hopes to work for a biotechnology company in San Diego after she completes her doctorate. She says she learned “many of the fundamental biochemistry techniques I use now” when she did undergraduate research at PLNU with Ariane Jansma, Ph.D.

Steele, who minored in computational science, also completed an honors project at PLNU, working primarily with Ryan Botts, Ph.D., from the Department of Mathematical, Information, and Computer Sciences, and David E. Cummings, Ph.D., from the Department of Biology.

“I was able to dip my toes into Nanopore sequencing, which I am doing in my lab today,” she said. “It was one of the reasons my PI was interested in having me join the lab.”

Like Steele,  Kelsey Alexander (15) is a doctoral student at UCSD, and she, too, works in a lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Alexander is pursuing her Ph.D. in chemistry and biochemistry and is part of the Gerwick lab. Her P.I. is Bill Gerwick, Ph.D. One of the main focuses of her lab’s research is cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, found  in the ocean. The cyanobacteria she is interested in are photosynthetic cellular organisms that typically live near the shore and can be collected by scuba diving.

“Cyanobacteria have been found to produce secondary metabolites,” Alexander explained. “Secondary metabolites are not required to function, but they have important roles. I am trying to work on the discovery and isolation of these secondary metabolites for their potential treatment of cancer and diseases.”

Kelsey Alexander (15) is a doctoral student at UCSD and works at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. One of her lab's main focuses is cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, which may be able to help with potential cancer treatments.

She is currently analyzing a culture of cyanobacteria that holds potential for developing treatments for lung cancer. Alexander and her team begin by collecting samples from the ocean. They utilize different chemicals to further separate and extract the bioactive compounds from the cyanobacteria.

After she finishes her doctorate and post-doctorate, Alexander would like to pursue a career as a chemistry professor. In fact, she is already serving as an adjunct chemistry instructor at her alma mater.

“I’ve always loved math and science,” Alexander said. “And I’ve always had a heart for teaching. I realized I wanted to be a college professor while I was a student in Dr. [April] Maskiewicz [Cordero’s] lab. One thing that is unique about Point Loma is that professors will continue to reach out to their former students long after graduation. Point Loma really helped shape me into the person I am today.”

Related Story: Jeff Hester uses his craft of filmmaking to connect people with our planet’s incredible ocean ecosystems.

Kelsey Alexander (15) and colleagues in scuba gear, preparing to get into the water.
The cyanobacteria that Alexander is interested in typically live near the shore and can be collected by scuba diving.

One of the faculty members who has kept in touch with Alexander is Katherine Maloney, Ph.D., professor of chemistry. Maloney works on natural products isolation, and she is currently in the process of publishing work she began a decade ago at Harvey Mudd College related to soft corals.

“Nature is a source for many of the medicines that we have,” Maloney said, explaining one of the reasons she enjoys natural products chemistry. “There are drugs in the clinic, and many more in preclinical or clinical trials that came from ocean creatures, including marine bacteria, algae, corals, sponges, and snails.”

Katherine Maloney, Ph.D., and marine biologist Catherine McFadden worked together to study soft corals in Palau. The corals were previously thought to be one species but were found to actually be seven different ones.

In her graduate program at Cornell University, Maloney had focused her study on fungi and plants. Her postdoctoral work at Scripps involved marine bacteria, but she had originally intended to study fungi when she accepted a teaching position at Harvey Mudd. However, she connected with a marine biologist, Catherine McFadden. McFadden studied soft corals and had recently uncovered through genetic analysis that a soft coral called Sarcophyton glaucum, which was previously thought to be a single species, was actually seven different species.

Maloney explained that this  discovery is important because some of the natural products that were isolated from S. glaucum have potential medical applications.

“Since the soft corals look the same, the old method of morphology was to dissolve the organic matter,” Maloney explained. “What’s left when you do that are microscopic fragments of calcium carbonate called sclerites. Taxonomists would look at the characteristics of the sclerites to classify and identify species. The new method involves using DNA sequencing.”

Maloney ended up partnering with McFadden to further study how the cryptic species identity correlates with the chemistry produced. They wrote a grant, which was funded, and collected 300 soft coral samples in Palau during a weeklong scuba diving research expedition. McFadden’s lab did the DNA sequencing, and Maloney and her students worked on capturing the corals’ chemistry systematically.

Part of what has allowed them to do this work and to make these new discoveries is the availability of new scientific tools for genetic analysis and coding. PLNU associate professor of mathematics, Ryan Botts, Ph.D., has been working closely with Maloney on the analysis. Maloney’s sister, an economics graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, has been helping as well.

A photo of Sarcophyton glaucum, a type of soft coral.
Sarcophyton glaucum, a type of soft coral.

“It’s very interdisciplinary work,” Maloney said, echoing Cho. “Scientific research is moving in that direction, and ocean research is especially interdisciplinary. It has to be because the ocean is so complex.”

Their current work is especially exciting because one particular moleculefrom the soft coral may have tumor inhibition properties.

The insights gained from work done by researchers like Cho, Lee, Steele, Alexander, and Maloney may hold the key to curing diseases, improving human health, and better understanding and protecting the oceans.

“This study could allow that research to restart,” Maloney said. “It could also set the example to lead people to go revisit other stories like this.”

As researchers and analysts from various disciplines work together, our understanding of the ocean and its inhabitants grows in meaningful ways.

Related story: The ocean is in danger and alum Vipe Desai has committed himself towards leading the conversation on ocean conservation.

Christine is the editor of the Viewpoint magazine at PLNU.