Graham Sustainability Institute

Water Perspective: An Interview with Dr. Gregory Dick

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Dr. Gregory Dick

We invite you to read about one researcher’s perspective on the importance of developing strong interdisciplinary research teams to address complex water resource issues. This interview is with Dr. Gregory Dick, Associate Professor in the Departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. He is the principal investigator of Water Center-supported project Integrating microbial genomics, chemistry, and ecosystem processes to understand harmful algal blooms

Q: In a few sentences, briefly describe your current water research and area(s) of expertise. 

A: I describe myself as a geomicrobiologist, environmental microbiologist, or microbial oceanographer depending on who I'm talking to and what I'm working on. My area of expertise is in applying genomics-based approaches to study the interaction between microorganisms and their environment. Currently my main focus in water research is on cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms. In particular, we're trying to understand what environmental and microbiological factors drive the toxicity of these blooms.

Q: What challenges and opportunities have you encountered in water research and how have you approached them?

A: One of the big challenges with many of the problems we study is their interdisciplinary nature. That's why our grant from the Water Center was so exciting - it allowed us to build an interdisciplinary team to tackle a wicked scientific problem that involves many different areas of research that are typically not connected.
There is a major opportunity in my field to harness the latest DNA sequencing technologies to understand environmental processes. This area of "environmental omics" is starting to mature and realize some of its promises. But we still have a long way to go, especially in engaging computational and environmental scientists to build infrastructure that will capture and organize the data such that it is accessible, portable, and discoverable.

Q: From your perspective, what are the critical components for impactful water research?

A: To me, impactful water research addresses urgent problems with novel and interdisciplinary approaches. Although I mainly do basic research, from my perspective, interactions with stakeholders, policymakers, and government agencies are also critical.

Q: What do you see as the future of water research—both in your area(s) of expertise and beyond? 

A: I envision a new generation of probes and sensors, based on detecting biological molecules (mainly DNA, RNA, and protein), that provide unique information about water quality, cycling of nutrients, elements, and pollutants, and ecosystem status. These new data streams will lead to new types of mechanistic computer models that have unprecedented power in terms of monitoring and managing water resources.