A few years ago I (Matthew Huber) worked with a post-doc named Laura Carney while she was at Scripps. She is an amazing woman who has pushed the envelope in phycology while working at Heliae (an algae growing and research company in Arizona.) I was lucky enough to get a tour of the facility a few years back and lucky again when she said yes to us interviewing her!
Algae Research Supply’s Interview of Laura Carney:
Algae Research Scientist, I am currently self-employed but most recently I was Director of Ag Science at Heliae.
I chose this career because algae biotech was a renewed field when I finished grad school and the prospect of making useful products with algae, and bringing algae to the general population to benefit from was very exciting. In addition, with newer industries, companies tend to be smaller and there can be more opportunity to get experience outside your expertise and expand your skill set.
For the first few years after starting at Heliae, I performed direct research in algae crop protection. My time was spent sampling/observing the algae ponds, using molecular tools and microscopy to identify potential pests and then running experiments to try to solve contamination issues. Later on as a Director I managed a technical team investigating how algae can be used as an agricultural product. My days consisted of lots of meetings: strategic planning, checking in with and mentoring junior technical staff, presentations to external visitors, investors, board members etc. but also travel to visit field sites where our products were being tested and interact with customers.
Algae has some very exciting prospects and is highly versatile with the potential to replace more unsustainable technologies. There is a saying in the industry that ‘you can make anything from algae except money’. This is the challenge. Our work at Heliae was aimed at both discovering new products but also making algae technology economically feasible.
I completed an M.S. in restoration ecology at the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in Ecology (of seaweeds!) at UC Davis. After that I did two post-docs focused on microalgae, one at Scripps and one at Sandia National Labs.
Coastal Field Ecology was my favorite undergrad class at Boston College. I loved most of my courses in grad school but my favorite was a summer long Phycology course at Friday Harbor Labs in WA with Paul Gabrielson and Charlie O’Kelly.
I had many excellent mentors along the way. In high school I was very lucky to intern with Bob Shoop and Carol Ruckdeschel on a remote island off GA studying loggerhead sea turtles and other aspects of island ecology. This experience set me on my ecological path. Academically, I worked with a host of inspiring researchers, including Kern Ewing, Bob Waaland, Terrie Klinger, Matt Edwards, Susan Williams and Todd Lane. Professionally, Lee Tonkovich was an important mentor of mine. All of these people supported me by giving me opportunities and valuable feedback/perspective.
What areas would you advise students to explore as career paths?
The most important career path is one you are excited to wake up for every day. I do think there are plenty of positions out there if you can be creative about the path you take and are open to relocation.The algae industry has resurged in the last ten year and during that time has shifted product focus areas a few times. If you are interested in industry, choosing a company that can be nimble as new uses for algae become possible is wise. At this point it is hard to say what direction algae will go.
Clearly, anything to do with sustainability and, more importantly, regenerative practices to improve our planet needs to be a central teaching in school. And a hands-on approach showing students changes they can make in their own lives would be most impactful.
Advice for students pursuing science: If pursuing grad school, get advice early on from multiple researchers/professors on programs that would be good for you and what you can do to make your application competitive. Along your path, be careful to choose advisers and mentors that are supportive and have your success in mind. As long as you are bright and maintain a reputation as a hard worker, it will be possible to switch your focus/position if needed. The science community is wonderful in that way. There are so many directions and opportunities and it is possible to gain diverse expertise if you have the motivation.
Thank you Laura!
-Matthew Huber 2020