Career Corner with Sarah O’Brien

Postdoctoral researcher Sarah O’Brien recently was awarded a highly competitive Laboratory-Directed Research and Development (LDRD) grant. This prestigious award is part of a program authorized by the Department of Energy (DOE) that allows national laboratories to invest in cutting-edge exploratory research and development beyond what DOE currently supports. O’Brien graduated with a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her Ph.D. dissertation focused on soil ecology and biogeochemistry, which is the emphasis of her LDRD project as well. During her dissertation, she examined how soil physical processes protect soil organic matter from microbial decay. The cornerstone of her work is soil carbon cycling in restored grasslands which has implications for climate change.

In particular, she studied how complex three-dimensional soil structures called aggregates protect organic matter from microbial decay, thereby slowing the return of carbon fixed in plant resides back to the atmosphere as CO2.

O’Brien performed much of her thesis research here at Argonne in the Biosciences Division. “I started as an intern and liked what I was doing so much that I decided to pursue a Ph.D.,” says O’Brien. She has been at Argonne for more than 11 years advancing and refining her life’s work.

Her LDRD project is a continuation of her ongoing research into soil biogeochemistry. As part of her project she will use advanced engineered nanoparticles with X-ray imaging to label and map microbial activity in three-dimensional soil aggregates. “With recent advances in DNA sequencing technology, the research has become exceptional at identifying which microbes are present in a soil sample,” details O’Brien, “but it is still rather challenging for researchers to tell where the microbes are and what they’re doing.” O’Brien’s project will address those challenges.

O’Brien put many hours into writing her LDRD proposal, refining her concepts and goals, and making her case for her research. She advises other postdocs to start early as the process can be a length one. “This call comes every year in May, but you don’t need to wait for the announcement to start working on your ideas,” says O’Brien.

She began by enlisting the help of her colleagues. She read their past proposals that were successful and unsuccessful to help her frame her LDRD proposal. Her experience was extremely positive. She received plenty of support from her co-investigators, postdoc supervisor and her former Ph.D. research supervisor. “I came to them with the big-picture idea, but everyone contributed to the development of the experimental plans,” said O’Brien. “From brainstorming ideas to commenting on drafts to prepping the presentation I had to make to the committee, everyone did all they could to help make the proposal successful.”

In writing her proposal, O’Brien made the case how her project among so many others would capitalize upon Argonne’s unique capabilities and how it would contribute to the laboratory mission. “I think my proposal was successful because I could sincerely say I had the right team and Argonne was the very best place to do the work,” notes O’Brien.

She describes this grant as integral to her future at Argonne. “Depending on how Congress handles the fiscal cliff, the funding should help me transition to a staff position,” says O’Brien. “Perhaps more than that, this project is helping me establish a role that is unique from my mentors.”

Sarah O’Brien (CELS) is a postdoc currently investigating constraints on soil microbial processes under the aegis of an LDRD grant. She uses a variety of techniques in her research, including next-generation DNA sequencing, stable isotopes and soil fractionation together with lab experiments and field manipulations to examine soil microbial and physical processes that are critical for nutrient fluxes, ecosystem stability and carbon exchange between the land and atmosphere.

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