Ryan Lesniewski // microbial ecologist // class of 2008

If you want to improve food security for everyone on the planet, you probably want to get started on that lofty goal right away. That’s the tactic pursued by Ryan Lesniewski (B.S. Biochemistry and Genetics, Cell Biology and Development), who is currently in the Ph.D. program at the University of Southern California, studying the microbial ecology of organic hydroponic cultivation of plants.

“Thanks to undergraduate research opportunities at the University of Minnesota, I actually started working professionally as a research scientist before I graduated from CBS,” Lesniewski says. “Dr. Brandy Toner gave a guest lecture in my biogeochemistry course, and I followed up with her about the possibility of working on one of her projects. I worked with her to study microbial communities in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, then took another research position at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor to work on a project involving metagenomics and metatranscriptomics of microbial communities in hydrothermal systems.”

It was that work, he says, which ultimately led him to graduate studies in Los Angeles. Struck by factors such as urban sprawl and limited fresh water availability, he was inspired to study the effect of microorganisms in water-efficient recirculating hydroponic systems. “My longer-term goals are to help implement this technology at larger scales, and address different geographical challenges, so that, even with limited water supplies, we can grow our food locally, organically and sustainably,” he says.

“Working with smart faculty and collaborators made me realize the importance of asking the right scientific questions,” Lesniewski says. “I really want to make a positive impact on food security. It’s not an easy task, but it will make for an incredibly exciting career.”