NorthenLab: Exometabolomics linking genomes with environments to understand how webs of microbes sustain biomes

New Lab Member Highlight: Rachel Neurath

The Northen Lab would like to welcome Rachel Neurath, a new postdoc with a background in soil microbial ecology! We are excited to work with Rachel, and you can read a bit about her in the following interview.


What is your area of expertise? Could you talk a little bit about your background and what brought you to your field? 

My expertise is in soil microbial ecology. My scientific background has been a bit meandering (I started as a geologist), but I have always followed the questions that excite me. As a kid, I loved spending time outdoors and became passionate about environmental issues. I considered myself an environmentalist before I thought of myself as a scientist, and I like to pursue work that addresses environmental issues, particularly climate change. I did my masters research on the impact of clear-cutting forests on soil carbon storage. As I tried to understand the mechanisms of carbon loss from soil after clear-cutting, I recognized the central role of microbes in soil carbon cycling. I wanted to learn more, so I  joined Mary Firestone’s soil microbial ecology group at UC Berkeley for my PhD. At the end of my masters’, a paradigm-shifting review paper came out highlighting the importance of physical protection, particularly mineral association, for carbon persistence in soil. For my PhD, I designed greenhouse experiments to look at microbial mediation of carbon flow from roots to soil minerals using stable isotope tracing with 13C. I used a range of techniques to characterize carbon transformation and mineral association (13C-NMR, NanoSIMS, STXM/NEXAFS, FTICR-MS, and lipidomics), trying to relate carbon transformation to microbial processes. For my postdoctoral work, metabolomics seemed like the perfect approach to really understand mechanisms of microbial carbon transformation and relate that to carbon storage. I also became fascinated with the role of viruses in soil during my involvement in two DOE projects towards the end of my PhD. There is still so much to learn about carbon cycling and storage in soils, and the role of viruses remains one of the largest unknowns. 

Do you have any anecdotes or funny stories from your previous research?

During my masters, I helped lead a geology field seminar in Iceland and we got “pulled over” by the police in a helicopter. We were driving to a site by a volcano on a remote road that was closed (but the sign was missing and we really didn’t know!)

What research topics or experimental techniques are you most excited to work on in the Northen Lab? 

All of it! I am very interested in looking at the role of viral infection on host metabolism and trying to connect those metabolic shifts to biogeochemical cycling and in particular carbon storage. I really enjoyed using MS techniques in my PhD work and I am excited especially to do more lipidomics and to try doing metabolomics on isotopically labeled samples. 

Could you name a favorite book, piece of music, video game, or movie?

I love to read and it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I guess The Lord of the Rings trilogy is my favorite, and my favorite recent reads are Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear and The Name of the Wind. 

Is there anything you are excited to see or do in the Bay Area? Or, if you have been here before, any recommendations? 

I did my PhD at UC Berkeley, so I have been here for awhile. I recommend spending time outdoors. There are some amazing places to go hiking (Yosemite, Tahoe, Big Sur, Big Basin…) It is also fun to explore the hidden paths in the Berkeley Hills. During COVID, both the Berkeley Botanic Garden and the Tilden Botanic Garden have opened by reservation. After COVID ends, there is great food. If you are a huge nerd like me, there are free Sea Chanties on an old ship at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park every month (closed now with COVID). Also after COVID, there are some fantastic museums – SFMOMA, Academy of Sciences, the Exploratorium, and with kids in particular, the Lawrence Hall of Science.