Spring 2016 | Biology | Marquette University

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Faculty Feature: James Maki

How did I get here: from Music to Microbes



James Maki


When I started college my goal was to be a music therapist (defined, according to the American Music Therapy Association, as ‘an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals’; www.musictherapy.org). I had an extended musical background playing piano from age 6 and percussion from age 11. Subsequently, at Whitworth College (Spokane, Washington) I started as a music major playing percussion in the band and orchestra, singing in the choir and taking private piano lessons in addition to courses in music theory, music history and analysis, and the psychology of music. However, after a while, I changed my major to Biology and became an advisee of Dr. Howard Stien. (Besides being a cell biologist and a geneticist, he was also an ordained minister, remained a lifelong friend, and as a minister performed the marriage ceremony for me and my wife Kaye-Eileen Willard). I should point out that during my high school career I had not ignored the sciences taking course work in biology, chemistry, physics and advanced biology, so it wasn’t like I was taking a leap into the unknown. The switch was precipitated by several issues involving, at that time, the slim chance of getting into an accepted music therapy program.


Thus, started my career as a biologist who was thinking pre-med. At the time, almost all of my fellow biology majors considered themselves pre-med, so I wanted to fit in. Then came a series of distractions, the first of which was taking a course in invertebrate biology taught by Dr. Rodger Shoemake which has been an influence in my research since that time. I was fascinated by invertebrates, particularly marine species, which helped lead me away from thinking pre-med. The second distraction was that during spring break, there were field trips conducted by Dr. Dave Hicks to the coast of Washington, particularly Whidbey Island.  There I got to see and study intertidal marine invertebrates in their own habitat and from then on I never really considered being pre-med anymore. I graduated with a major in biology and minors in music and chemistry.


For graduate school I wanted to get into a program that featured aquatic biology. I ended up in a Masters in Zoology Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (at the time they had two separate departments and graduate programs in life sciences: the Department of Zoology, which had a master’s program and the Department of Botany, which had a Ph.D. program; I was never a botanist). They were also associated with an academic research group called the Center for Great Lakes Studies (which has since morphed into the School of Freshwater Sciences at UWM). This latter association allowed me to focus on coursework in aquatic biology. Although my original intention was to work on invertebrates, I ended up doing research in the laboratory of Dr. Art Brooks on the effects of chlorine on fish, in particular on the structure of their gills. While I was working on my master’s degree, I had the great fortune to take a course called Marine Microbiology taught by Dr. Charles ‘Tony’ Remsen and it was then that I discovered what I really wanted to do for my Ph.D. and subsequent career: aquatic microbiology. By the time I had completed my Master’s degree, the departments of Botany and Zoology at UWM had merged into Biological Sciences and had started a new Ph.D. program which I entered. Although my Ph.D. research with Tony Remsen, a great mentor, was focused on microbes, called the neuston, that are found at the air/water interface of freshwater lakes and ponds, I also participated in projects involving pollution indicator bacteria in the Milwaukee Harbor and adjacent Lake Michigan, and studies involving the sub-thermocline chlorophyll a maximum observed in Lake Michigan during the summer when the lake is thermally stratified. I was busy. It was a lot of fieldwork (or lake work, per se) but I did not mind at all. I even volunteered to go out on additional research cruises just to provide an extra pair of hands. As I was nearing the end of my graduate career, I stared looking for a postdoctoral position. My strategy was to pick some of the biggest names I was familiar with in marine or freshwater microbiology and send them a letter looking for a position. One day I received a letter from Dr. James Staley at the University of Washington, indicating that he had an open postdoc position and would I please have letters of recommendation sent.  I ended up going to his laboratory in the Department of Microbiology.


Jim Staley is an outstanding bacteriologist and from him I continued my education about microbes which I had begun with Tony Remsen. During my time (~1.5 yrs) at the University of Washington we worked hard and it resulted in three manuscripts. However, as often happens, the grant money was running out, and although we had submitted several proposals, it was unlikely they would be funded in time. Jim came to see me one day with an ad from Prof. Ralph Mitchell at Harvard University, in which he was looking for a postdoc, and said, “I think you should apply for this”.  I did, and to my surprise, was offered the position. So in the month of December, I embarked with car and belongings and left Seattle headed for Boston.


Ralph Mitchell’s Laboratory of Microbial Ecology was located in what was then called the Division of Applied Sciences at Harvard and it was there that I began to work in the field of marine biofouling, particularly examining the role of microbial biofilms on the subsequent settlement and metamorphosis of marine invertebrate larvae.  I was back looking at invertebrates. My main colleague on the invertebrate side was (and continues to be) Dr. Dan Rittschof of the Duke University Marine Laboratory. My time at Harvard was punctuated by many trips to North Carolina to do research. In addition, during my first summer in Boston, Ralph rented lab space at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA, and two visiting scientists, Dr. Staffan Kjelleberg and his wife, Dr. Patricia Conway, came to spend the summer working at the MBL. I spent a lot of time driving back and forth from Boston to Cape Cod and once again, made some lifelong friends and learned a lot. Staffan, eventually became the Professor of the Department of Marine Microbiology at the University of Goteborg in Sweden and when he wanted to start a marine biofouling program he invited me to come over and help them get started. All told, I spent a total of about a year living and working in Sweden.


Jim Maki in Antarctica
Jim Maki in Antarctica

Also during my time at Harvard, Jim Staley and his postdoc, Dr. Russ Herwig received funding from the NSF to do research in Antarctica and invited me to come along as they needed an extra pair of hands.  This involved two separate trips to Antarctica to study the breakdown of krill exoskeletons, which are rich in nitrogen, a limiting nutrient for primary production in marine waters. Finally, Tony Remsen from UWM contacted me to see if I could help them out with research they were doing studying hydrothermal vents in Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park. So, I started doing that as my summer vacation. Once again, it was busy, although I did also fit in an MBL summer course in Marine Ecology: Molecular Probes besides doing biofouling and corrosion research.  I spent 10 years at Harvard, and one day I opened a copy of Science and saw an ad for an Ecologist at Marquette University, and in the fine print it said ‘could be microbial ecologist’and I thought: I can do that. I applied, interviewed, and once again to my surprise, was offered the position.


Nick Konkol in Yellowstone Jim Bruckner in Yellowstone Carl Schroeder in Yellowstone
Nick Konkol, Jim Bruckner, and Carl Schroeder earned their Ph.D.s researching microbes associated with hydrothermal vents in Yellowstone Lake.

Since then, I have been doubly blessed by talented undergraduate and graduate students working in my lab. Unfortunately, there have been so many undergraduates that it would be difficult to name them all. However, I do want to thank you all for the efforts you put forth in my lab and the valuable data you ended up generating.  As far as graduate students, my first student was Lijun Ding who earned her MS working on bacterial adhesion. Carl Schroeder, Jim Bruckner, and Nick Konkol all earned their Ph.D. degrees doing research on the microbes associated with hydrothermal vents in Yellowstone Lake, which was one of the earlier projects in the lab. Carl went on to do a postdoc at the University of Maryland, and is now Director, Food Safety & Commodity Specification, for the US Dept. Agriculture. Jim went on to do postdocs first in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech, and then at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, and is nowMaster of Quality for Left Hand Brewing in Longmont, CO. Nick went to a postdoc in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard, was a Lecturer at Indiana State University and is now Manager, Scientific Innovation, for Force Communications LLC. Jerry Kavouras earned his Ph.D. studying the effects of microbial biofilms on larval and young adult zebra mussel attachment, another major project in the lab. He went on to a postdoc in Chicago and is currently Associate Professor (soon to be Professor) and Department Chair in the Department of Biology at Lewis University in Romeoville, IL.


Jim Maki in Antarctica
Keerthi Cherukuri, Prince Mathai, and Rachel Morris

The most recent cluster of graduate students all worked on various projects involving anaerobic digestion in collaboration with Dr. Dan Zitomer from the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering in the School of Engineering here at Marquette. Rachel Morris earned her Ph.D. studying methanogen abundance and activity and methane production rates in anaerobic digesters and did a postdoc at Michigan State University where she is currently aTeaching Specialist in Biomedical Laboratory Diagnostics. Keerthi Cherukuri earned an MS also focusing on methanogens in anaerobic digesters and is currently a Senior Quality Microbiologist at Guy and O'Neill, Inc. Most recently, Prince Mathai earned his Ph.D. studying the abundance and activity of acetogens, the group of bacteria who breakdown fatty acids and provide methanogens with the materials they need to produce methane. He is currently a Postdoctoral Associate in the Bio Technology Institute at the University of Minnesota. Thank you all.


I have also been blessed by past and present colleagues, both faculty and staff, in the Department of Biological Sciences who always made/make it easy to come to work every day. Finally, I was blessed by having an understanding and loving wife, Kaye-Eileen, who has supported all my academic efforts no matter how crazy or inconvenient they were. That, in a nutshell, is how I went from being a music major when I entered college to a microbiologist at Marquette University.






Biological Sciences Department

Marquette University, Wehr Life Sciences
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Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881
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