Sarah Livingston Dean was born and raised in the suburbs outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She found her passion for ecology in high school, when she attended the Maine Coast Semester program. There, students immersed themselves in the ecology of the Maine coast not only through science and literature classes, but also through farm and campus labor.
Sarah obtained her BA from the alternative learning institution, Hampshire College. There, she developed an interdisciplinary major that focused on the intersection between human and environmental ecology. Her thesis, titled “Ecology of the Home,” explored the changing relationship between a Karen hill tribe and the forest in northern Thailand. Sarah’s thesis included a creative writing component consisting of several short stories illustrating the Karen’s relationship with the forest, as well as a scientific component that examined soil and tree regeneration during the fallow years of slash-and-burn agriculture.
Later at Woods Hole Marine Biological Lab, Sarah studied how invasive plants alter soil biogeochemistry, solidifying her interest in soil ecology. She found something romantic about the idea of learning the secret life of soil. After college Sarah took an internship at Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida, and conducted research on the effects of fire and vegetation structure on soil biogeochemistry. She eventually landed in Dr. Robert Sinsabaugh’s lab at the University of New Mexico. Sarah worked on several research projects on plant-associated fungi before entering a program with Dr. Sinsabaugh as her advisor.
During her PhD program Sarah has employed Next Generation Sequencing techniques to explore the effects of anthropogenically induced environmental changes on plant-microbe relationships, with a focus on root associated microbes. She has conducted research in alpine tundra at the Niwot LTER site in Colorado, and in the pinyon-juniper woodlands of New Mexico. MSA generously awarded her the Denison Mentor Student Travel award on two occasions. These awards defrayed the costs of travel to MSA 2012 in New Haven, CT, and to MSA 2014 in East Lansing, MI, where she gave a poster and an oral presentation respectively. Sarah successfully defended her dissertation, titled “Root Associated Microbes as Mediators of Plant-Soil Interactions,” this February and will graduate in May, 2015. Her work has been featured in Molecular Ecology and Environmental Microbiology.
Immediately following graduation, Sarah will work as a part-time lecturer at the Community College of New Mexico, and as an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Mexico. These positions will provide a high amount of schedule flexibility, ideal for the time being given her most immediate projects: raising a toddler and infant.
Sarah also feels drawn to research on the human microbiome, as new discoveries in that area are dramatically changing the way western medicine views patients: as a colony rather than a single organism. Whether of plant or animal, a microbiome represents the interface between environment and individual. There could not be a more literal representation of linking the individual to a larger environmental context.