UCSB Professor Receives Leopold Leadership Fellowship Award For Research on the Decomposition of Oil


Nura Gabbara

Known for his role in the Department of Earth Science and as a geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Professor David Valentine has been selected, along with 20 other recipients, to be awarded the Leopold Leadership Fellowship for 2013. Valentine grasped his opportunity to study what has been coined the interaction among microbes, and between microbes and the Earth system off the coast of the UCSB pier. According to the Onward California website, Valentine was inspired by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill’s production of oil and gas emitting out of the sea floor to further investigate the composition of oil. Valentine presented his research findings of 2012 regarding oil-eating ocean bacteria that would aid his research progress.

The Onward California website serves as a platform to provide UC faculty and students a voice in the process of making California’s future brighter. Valentine communicated and presented his research findings through Onward California and was recognized by the Leopold Leadership Fellowship for his efforts.

“[He documented] the process of how bacteria blooms had consumed almost all the deepwater methane plumes following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 received worldwide attention,” according to News from UCSB, of Valentine’s 2012 study.

According to UCSB’s Office of Public Affairs, Valentine used tools of isotope geochemistry and molecular microbiology to study the interaction among ocean bacteria with the consumption of oil droplets. Valentine has dedicated long hours at the Marine Science Institute of Santa Barbara tracking, collecting, and studying samples of live bacteria.

“[It’s a] far trickier thing to do because oil comes in droplets in particles,” said Valentine of studying microbial bacterial communities.

The large quantities of gas and oil that are naturally released in the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel have been hindering the coast of Southern California, specifically in the quality of the air, water, and beaches.

Microbial ocean bacteria are known for consuming oil. Valentine’s interests lie in researching these communities thriving in Santa Barbara’s Shane Sea to better understand and break down the composition of oil. Particularly, his research revolves around the study of how the organisms produce chemicals and figure out ways to access this oil. Valentine’s research gained worldwide attention, specifically in the scientific community, because it is still unclear to scientists today what compounds oil makes up.

“[They] have been interested in developing a better understanding of the weathering processes occurring in hydrocarbon-rich environments,” according to the Coastal Research Center, of Valentine and other researchers.

Valentine has taught at the university for a number of years and currently serves as the Associate Professor in the Department of Earth Science. Among other things, his research interests include geochemistry, geomicrobiology, anaerobic microbial ecology, and Archaea, specifically in anoxic systems. He is affiliated with his two dedicated research groups, the Valentine Biochemistry Group and the Valentine Lab, where serious research tasks and learning takes place.

The Leopold Leadership Fellowship is a highly recognized program sponsored by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, which focuses on the skillful presentation of scientific research to broad audiences.

“[It] provides outstanding academic researchers with the skills, approaches, and theoretical frameworks for translating their knowledge to action,” according to the Leopold Leadership Program.

Leopold Leadership Fellowship recipients are trained in a once in a lifetime opportunity to actively engage in the scientific community, as well as to better understand, sustain, and be aware of serious environmental issues. Based in Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, Leopold Fellows will take part in two weeks of rigorous leadership and communication training. This program focuses on building relations among fellows and scientists who will learn the skills to present their research findings to the public via business leaders, journalists, and policy makers.