When Trent Northen came to the Lab 12 years ago he was focused on developing new technologies to study microorganisms. He still likes working with new technologies, but over the years, thanks to the influence of his colleagues, he has become interested in understanding how microbiomes assemble, interact, and modify their environments.
Trent’s lab uses mass spectrometry to study the chemistry of microbiomes, focusing on microbial modification and the exchange of small biological molecules (metabolites). This provides the researchers with important insights into beneficial plant-microbe interactions and nutrient cycling in soils for bioenergy, sustainable agriculture, and environmental stewardship.
This knowledge has changed the look of Trent’s front lawn. His Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) colleague Chris Petzold, a home winemaker, got Trent interested in home winemaking about 10 years ago. Trent says it is a natural complement to his scientific interests in soils, biochemistry, and microbiology. About eight years ago he put his knowledge to work, replacing the front lawn with grapevines.
Q: You were one of the key catalysts for the recent food bank challenge at the Lab. What is your connection to the food bank, and why was it important to you to raise money and awareness about hunger in our community?
A: My wife has volunteered at the Food Bank of Contra Costa & Solano for many years and I learned that even before COVID-19, one in eight residents rely on our local food bank. I had been thinking of what I could do to help with the pandemic and it occurred to me that many people at Berkeley Lab probably felt the same way and would want to participate in a Virtual Food Drive. The response was inspiring.
Q: This is the first time in recent memory different areas of the Lab got involved in a challenge to raise money and awareness for a community need. What did you learn from this experience?
A: The importance of getting everything lined up correctly and thinking big. I’d originally thought of it for the Integrative Genomics Building with the support of Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and KBase leadership. Soon Nikki Humphreys, Nick Everson, and Lida Gifford had started two other Biosciences’ teams. It expanded to other areas of the lab under the leadership of Jane Tanamachi and Cindy Lee at the ALS, David Skinner in Computing Sciences, and Ron Zuckerman and Corie Ralston at the Molecular Foundry.
Q: How does your belief in giving to the community tie in with the work you do at the Lab?
A: An Inconvenient Truth came out when I was a postdoc thinking about my next step. I was inspired to focus my career on harnessing microbes for bioenergy and sustainability–ultimately to help mitigate climate change. However, it was hard to imagine having much impact as a single scientist. Good fortune brought me to Berkeley Lab and team science, where together, we can make a big difference–just as we have done with the Virtual Food Drive!