Introducing Matt Harke – GMGI Research Scientist

Matthew Harke, PhD, joined the team in September as GMGI’s first Marine Microbial Scientist. Hailing from a small farm town in Wisconsin, as a child the closest thing he had to experiencing the ocean was fishing on a lake with his grandpa.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

Since childhood, I’ve always been amazed by the natural world, the seemingly endless diversity of animals, plants, and fungi that inhabit our planet. I was curious about how they worked and interacted with one another and was intimately aware of my own impact — how I interacted with the world. This led me to pursue the sciences as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin (Madison), studying physics, botany, chemistry and conservation. But I never felt satisfied with any one topic and so I ended up graduating with a Bachelor of Science in English Literature with an Environmental Studies certificate. From there, I held various jobs from bartending to IT consulting. Volunteering at the New York Aquarium was what finally led me back to science. I pursued a masters degree and eventual PhD in aquatic microbial ecology at Stony Brook University in New York, using genomics to study a number of topics from benthic-pelagic coupling to harmful algal bloom ecology. From there, I completed a postdoc at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, investigating open ocean microbial communities, using metatranscriptomic techniques to understand both the diversity and function of microorganisms and their microbiomes.

My change in careers gave me some amazing research opportunities working with some of the best scientists around the globe. I’ve conducted research in the western basin of Lake Erie immersed in some of the thickest blooms of toxic cyanobacteria. I’ve sailed into the middle of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, surrounded by the bluest waters, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest land. And I’ve witnessed under the microscope some of the most amazing, diverse organisms that drive the global biosphere, all while learning cutting-edge methods to explore these tiny organisms through the lens of genomics.

When did you first hear about GMGI, and what enticed you to be part of the GMGI research team?

My (now) wife and I had been in Massachusetts for two years when I remember seeing this exciting opportunity in Gloucester. I had heard about GMGI for a few years and I felt joining GMGI would give me opportunities to really forge my own path in a field I had grown to love.

What types of projects are you working on?

I am heading up GMGI’s Ecosystem Function and Health program, where we are using genomics to explore biodiversity and function of marine environments and developing genomic tools to assess ecosystem health and the response to natural and manmade stressors. We are developing ways to combine large-scale metagenomics and metatranscriptomics with other traditional and non-traditional methods to understand whole ecosystem diversity and function.

Do you have an analogy to help non-scientists understand your work?

Most of the microorganisms that exist in the ocean cannot be cultured in the lab and so we have to devise other ways to understand what they are and how they function. We have a few blueprints from better studied organisms and we use these to deduce similar functions. Say you are an auto mechanic. You’re good at your job and know the ins and outs of how a car works. Then one day a customer comes in with a car you’ve never seen before. Based upon what you know about other cars, you can begin to understand this strange new car and how it works. In much the same way, we are building our knowledge base about how marine ecosystems function, discovering who is there, why they are there, and what they are doing in order to better understand how the world works and our impact upon it.

What’s it been like working in a such a new research institute?

What I love about working at GMGI is the feeling that I’m directly contributing to building something from the ground up. At more established institutions, you’re more of a small cog in a large piece of rumbling machinery, with little independence. Here I get to be more in the driver’s seat. It’s exciting!

What excites you when you think about your research here, and GMGI’s future?

It’s a really unique opportunity — to shape my research path and be a part of a growing company and dedicated team. GMGI has done an amazing job of hiring some of the brightest, most talented and driven individuals. Not only will my career benefit, but I can’t wait to be part of the future of GMGI.

You moved to the North Shore from New York. How has it been adjusting to New England?

For our first two years in Massachusetts, we lived just outside Boston, which was a bit of an adjustment from the South Fork of Long Island, NY. We’re happy to have landed now in the quieter, picturesque neighborhood of Beverly Farms, close to the water and lots of hiking trails. We’re looking forward to our first summer on the North Shore!