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Exploring the In-Between

Dave Caron, professor of biological sciences in USC College. Photo credit Max S. Gerber.
Dave Caron, professor of biological sciences in USC College. Photo credit Max S. Gerber.

He’s been to the bottom of the ocean on the Alvin submarine and spent nearly three years of accumulated time on cruise expeditions. Yet, Dave Caron still has a visit to the Space Station to tick off on his life check-list. Then he will have been, literally, to the top and bottom of the world.

But most of his career has taken place in-between. Caron’s lab in USC College focuses on the thorough understanding of algae and protozoa, groups of microbes that are essential components of virtually every aquatic food web.

“The overarching theme of my lab is to better understand microbial diversity and how it plays out in terms of how the ecosystem functions,” said Caron, professor of biological sciences.

Although some phytoplankton studied by Caron are harmful due to toxins they can produce, most of the single-celled microbes are actually good and eventually become a food source.

“It works fine until one of the toxic algae becomes favored in the environment and then causes problems for humans, marine mammals and marine birds,” he said. Domoic acid, a major culprit, is a naturally occurring marine toxin that is produced by certain algae when they bloom.

Caron’s research begins in both the deep and coastal ocean waters and ends in his laboratory. To aid in data collection, he collaborates with Guarav Sukhatme, professor of computer science in USC Viterbi. Sukhatme programs teams of robots by developing mathematical algorithms and then engineers robotic systems.

“Dave and I have collaborated for a decade. I conduct basic research to help scientists like him get better data to solve scientific problems,” Sukhatme said.

Programmed gliders of metal and plastic sporting USC insignia collect data as deep in the ocean as 340 feet.

“Among the fundamental questions we want to know is how microbial communities that have existed for four billion years originate and how we can mitigate events in the future to minimize collateral damage,” Caron said. He added that we have to understand the entire ecosystem to fix any problems, including global climate change.

Both Caron and Sukhatme are participants in the Center for Embedded Networking Sensing (CENS), a science and technology center begun in 2002 at the University of California, Los Angeles, and are part of Katrina Edwards’ Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations team.

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2010 issue.