Cara Santelli

Happy Thursday! Our special guest this week is Cara Santelli, an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences as well as the BioTechnology Institute (BTI). Cara leads her own lab that examines the impact of microbial activity on wide-ranging geological and environmental processes. In addition to answering key questions on the mechanisms, metabolic pathways, and geochemical impact of mineral-metal-microbe interactions, the research that Cara’s lab does seek to inform and improve strategies for remediating pollutants to improve the health of water and soil environments. The research also aims to advance environmental justice through community-based participatory research that prioritizes and addresses the voices of communities. Read further to learn how Cara got into the work that she does!


How did you get into the work that you do?

I really enjoyed a class in mineralogy when I was an undergraduate, and I told the professor that I was interested in how that class could lead to a career.  He introduced me to a geomicrobiology lab doing research that had an environmental focus, and a postdoc researcher took me under her wings and taught me about the science, being a researcher, and how this type of interdisciplinary science could open up doors for a lot of career opportunities. I was hooked!  I started conducting research with the postdoc and loved being in the lab and tackling questions and problems.  I learned so many skill sets both in the lab and out (how to read papers, how to mentor people, how to communicate science). This experience really shaped me and helped me pursue graduate school and beyond.  Interestingly, I’m still connected to some of the undergrads, grad students, and postdocs that were in the lab at the time! 

What is a question people always ask you when they learn what you do? What is your typical response?

People always ask me about the most interesting place that I’ve worked in. Which is the bottom of the seafloor!  I went down in the deep submergence vehicle Alvin during my Ph.D. research to look at microbes inhabiting the ocean crust.  I’ll never forget that experience!

What is one of your favorite aspects of your work? What is the most challenging?

I have so many favorite aspects of my work. One of the things that I didn’t expect when becoming a professor is how much I would enjoy watching group members succeed in their professional and personal endeavors!  On the flip side, I think one of the most challenging aspects is figuring out how to be a great advisor and mentor to each person in my research group. I’m still learning!  

If you could study any one topic or idea, and money/time/equipment/ were not an issue, what would you study?

I would love to study how to recover all the metals needed for new technologies without harming the environment or society.  There are many approaches and new technologies needed for this because people hold different values around nature, resources, and societal growth.

Outside of your scientific studies, what other subjects or interests do you enjoy?

I’m becoming really interested in sustainability and policy. I often think about what the impacts of some of my research are, and these two topics often rise to the top in thinking about the future of society and planetary health.  Outside of work, I love being outdoors with my family – camping, hiking, canoeing, skiing, and biking are some of my favorites.

What is a fun fact that few people would guess about you?

I absolutely love waterslides and roller coasters! 

Header Photo by Jack Prommel