Hewson Lab at Cornell


Team Aquatic Virus - Microbial Oceanography, P.I. Ian Hewson, Ph.D.

About Team Aquatic Virus, Fun Facts, an Interview with Ian and More!

The Hewson Lab at Cornell is a unique lab in the emerging and important field of microbial oceanography. The Hewson Lab also focuses on marine viruses, which are a largely unstudied but ubiquitous component of marine ecosystems all over the globe. For the past 22 years researchers have been investigating the impacts of marine viruses and Ian has been part of this work for over half that time!

Many research labs have a decidedly administrative of uninviting public face, but the Hewson Lab understands that researchers are people too! Sometimes it's interesting to know who is actually doing the research in Wing Hall 216, and what our story is. This page is dedicated to the history of Ian's work in microbial oceanography, how Team Aquatic Virus was founded, who we are and more about the actual lab at Cornell. We hope you enjoy reading!

Quick and fun trivia facts:

Ian traces his early interest in marine environments back to when he was 11 years old, in Kenya.

Ian is an impressive traveler and he's originally from Australia. What was he doing over there in Kenya?

The Hewson Lab wasn't always nicknamed "Team Aquatic Virus," in fact it used to have a much less interesting name...

Read more below to find out what it used to be!

The Team Aquatic Virus logo was inspired by the Sumerian language.

It also features the familiar structure of a bacteriophage, with it's protein capsid, tail and base plate.

An interview with the principal investigator himself, Ian Hewson, Ph.D.

Hey Ian, it's always nice to hear from you. How's summer in Ithaca treating you so far?

Hey! Summer’s going really well. As you know this is the first time I’ve been in Ithaca after commencement since moving to Cornell, and I’m looking forward to making steady headway on numerous projects. We’re 95% of the way there on quite a few, so this is a great opportunity to close out the last 5% and get this work out into the literature. Not to mention try and secure funding for future efforts!


Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background in marine science, and ultimately how you focused your efforts on marine microbial oceanography?

Most people I know are aware that I’m Australian, but my start in exploring the marine realm actually started when I was 11 in Kenya. My family was on vacation there and my mum bravely allowed me to enroll in a scuba class. After coming home I had to wait until I was 15 to get a PADI certification, which I did in eastern Australia in 1992. By the time I was 19 I was a divemaster.

I didn’t always want to become a marine scientist; for my first year as an undergrad I was convinced a career in vet science was for me, but after an internship at an equine vet where we castrated horses all day, I switched fields and completed my undergrad degree in Marine Science at the University of Queensland. It was there that I became heavily involved with the marine botany group (Bill Dennison’s lab) in my final year of classes, volunteering on various water quality projects. During that time my focus was on benthic microorganisms called microphytobenthos – which involved a LOT of microscopy!

I also started reading more and more on bacteria and viruses in the ocean, and especially how little we knew on the latter. I was instantly attracted to marine viruses since there was nobody else in Australia working on them. During a break between undergrad and honors year I visited Jed Fuhrman’s (who would later become my PhD advisor at USC) lab where I learned techniques to enumerate viruses. My honors project (which is different in Australia, comprising a year-long research project with no classes, and a full thesis at the end) was on estuarine viruses and viruses in sediments, both relative unknowns at the time. During that year I took part on my first research cruise, from Darwin to Townsville, which solidified my interest in marine virology. Following this I did a PhD with Jed starting in 2001, and the rest is history!


That's a pretty interesting path you've taken to where you are now. So what did your mother think you were going to be when you grew up? Do you think you've made her proud?

I think I went through the full gamut of careers during high school career advisement, from being an anaesthesiologist, to aeronautical engineering, to being a vet. I wasn’t much of a sportsman back then, but I think at one stage I wanted to be a figure skater. I definitely wanted to be a rock star. All’s well that ends well though, and I’m certain I’ve made my folks proud.


Have you always been in Wing Hall on campus? What was the scene like when you first came here?

Yup, I’ve always been in Wing. When you interview for a job like this they lay out what space you’d have, where your office would be, etc, so I had a pretty good idea of what the lab would look like.

I arrived on December 31, 2008 during a blizzard (the plane almost couldn’t land), and I started work 2 days later. One thing they don’t tell you when you start is what to wear. I came to Ithaca with almost no formal clothes stashed in my backpack (I’d just come from 2 months back in Australia and my shipment hadn’t arrived yet in town), so I remember going to the Gap at the mall and buying a bunch of new, formal clothes. As it turns out everyone was dressed very casually, so it was a non-issue. The first 6 months went by really fast. I was at a conference and then teaching a course, both in northern Italy, during that time. I was really fortunate that a student, Julie Brown, had approached me before arrival and expressed an interest in working in my lab. She’s now my senior graduate student.

My lab was open for business in the first week of March, although we had quite a few teething issues – like not having hand soap in the sinks, nor paper towels. Eventually we were at full steam in June-ish 2009.


What is the current state of the microbial oceanography field? Has it changed since you've started? What contributions has your lab made that have changed the way marine microbial oceanography is done?

Marine microbiology and microbial oceanography is really a new field, especially work in genomics and marine viruses. 22 years ago marks the first paper describing viruses as important and natural components of marine ecosystems (I’ve been a part of that story for 12!). 4 years ago there were only a handful of published metagenomic studies, now every journal that comes out has several. The field in general has made huge leaps in our understanding of the diversity of microorganisms and how they work in marine ecosystems.

My lab’s been working on some very important, yet so far relatively understudied aspects of microbial oceanography. We’ve been working with a couple of labs at the University of Maryland on a project to examine how bacterial physiology changes in response to transitions from oxic to anoxic and back to oxic conditions. We have invested heavily in examining how viruses influence the biology of zooplankton, both in marine and freshwater habitats. And finally, we have been trying to see whether viral diversity scales with cyanobacterial diversity in freshwater lakes and in the open ocean. We’ve been opening new doors, that is for sure.


Where did you get the name Team Aquatic Virus from? What was the inspiration? Couldn't you have just stuck with the "Hewson Lab" like every other lab on campus?

“Team Aquatic Virus” was borne from my desire to make everyone in the lab feel like they’re part of a team, kind of like people who play in a sports team. When I first started my lab was known as the “Microbial Oceanography Lab” which never really took. So I renamed it in Summer 2011 its current moniker. Labs are more than just the PIs (albeit the buck stops with me) – they are groups of people who work to achieve common goals. Plus it looks better on T-shirts.


How about that cool logo you made?

I’m fascinated by line symbols, especially from ancient languages. The minimalist logo we have now was inspired by sumerian and symbolizes the importance of viruses under the ocean’s surface. Actually it took me about 5 mins in Adobe Illustrator.

team aquatic virus logo
Tell us about the first scientific publication you had your name at the top of as a part of Team Aquatic Virus, and how did it come about? You've authored over 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers so far, is that a satisfying feeling?

Has it really been 50? I remember clearly the first paper I had published was based on my undergrad work in 2001. The paper had been accepted, and I received the galleys by email while in Florida on a research cruise. I remember carrying them around with me for hours unawares. Debbie Bronk (now president of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography) said to me “they’re you’re first eh?” with a smile on her face... I was so proud haha!

One of the coolest moments I’ve had was when my grad student, Julie Brown, had her first, and TAV’s first, paper accepted and published. Its awesome seeing your name as senior author! Its definitely satisfying as a coming of age.


Over time, what has changed in the Hewson Lab, and what is changing in the near future?

Well for one thing, we seem to be doing a lot more lake work. I’m an oceanographer, so working in lakes has definitiely been a real adjustment. I miss the salt and sulfur. I hope to move back into marine ecosystems as a focus in the near future. We’re continuing work on zooplankton viruses, and hopefully we’ll be starting new work on viruses from undersampled groups. For example, this summer we’re looking at shark viruses… stay tuned!


Have any particularly interesting characters come through Team Aquatic Virus in its time? Grad students, undergrads, post-docs?

We’ve had so many cool people come through my lab in the first 4 years it’s been great. I tend to recruit heavily from the undergraduate population, and we’ve had a really diverse crowd. For sure I’m most proud of the work that’s been published from undergraduate projects – not only does it look good for the students for future work at grad school (like what I’ve experienced) but it’s also great for me too. Brenna LaBarre recently co-won the department’s excellence in research award, something that I’m really proud of. The folks I’ve had out at Shoals have also been fun.


So Team Aquatic Virus seems like a pretty great group of people! Have you done anything as a team outside of the lab as well?

We’re a pretty tight group, and often we do things outside of the lab. For example last semester we did a bowling evening where I got my butt kicked by someone [*ahem*] but it was all good fun. Many folks in my lab play on the department’s innertube water polo team, although I didn’t get to play this year. I have been looking into paintball, which I think would be a fun lab activity – especially if the teams are me vs everyone else.


Looking back on where you thought you would be when you first started and where you are now, what went the way you thought it would and what has turned out to be totally different?

I’d say pretty much everything has gone how I’d expected, with the exception that I didn’t expect there to be such heavy student interest in marine microbiology at Cornell when I first came. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many students have approached me to work in the lab, which is really awesome!


What are your goals for the 2012-2013 academic year?

We are going gangbusters on a couple of research projects which we hope to have out to the scientific world by the end of the year. I can’t say exactly what in public before they’re published, but they should add a new dimension to the way in which people see marine viruses. I’m also hoping to finish off a number of projects over the summer, and start working more and more in marine ecosystems again.


What's the best two cents of advice you can give to someone in marine microbial oceanography?

Never use samples from the pool you swim in every day as a demonstration of viral and bacterial abundance in class. The results will make you think twice about swimming in said pool. Seriously though - volunteer and give your all. Grades aren’t the only important thing as an undergrad – research and especially published research are worth their weight in gold when it comes time to go to grad school.


Thanks for talking, Ian! Good luck on your research in the upcoming year and keep us updated!

My pleasure. Hopefully you’ll read about us in all the right places. Cheers.


Ian Hewson over the years, in photos!

Ian's first diving certification: Age 11

ian hewson's first diving certification, age 11

Ian as an undergrad, featuring an in situ respirometer

ian hewson as an undergrad

Adjusting the respirometer to measure in situ seagrass photosyntnesis, Amity Banks, Australia

ian adjusting the respirometer

Ian's office while a graduate student at USC

ian hewson as a grad student at USC

Ian's first cruise, Darwin to Townsville on the RV Maurice Ewing, 1999

ian hewson's first cruise rv maurice ewing

Ian with Steffi Gehret during his visit, 1999

ian hewson gehret visit 1999

Ian on an expedition with a multicorer, Santa Catalina Channel, 2001

ian hewson with multicorer, 2001

Ian looking for bacteriophage in the mid-Atlantic, RV Seward Johnson, 2003

ian hewson in 2003 collecting bacteriophages

Ian heading off to sample trace-metal-free mesocosms in the middle of the Pacific, 2003

ian hewson mesocosms, 2003