Today at Berkeley Lab

Nara’s Journey: From Mongolia and Back Again

By Sabin Russell

To most Americans, Outer Mongolia is a foreign place so out-of-the-way that the very words conjure images of remoteness, isolation, and unfamiliarity. To visiting Berkeley Lab researcher Nara Damdinsuren, they mean something else: Home.

A PhD candidate at Mongolian National University in her hometown, the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, Damdinsuren has been working since September in the Earth Sciences Division laboratory of Berkeley Lab staff scientist Tamas Torok. She is using genetic screens to catalog the microbial inhabitants of the Khaara River, which flows north through the dry mountainous nation of Mongolia, eventually draining into Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake.

“Nara is very hard-working,” says Torok. “I was very happy with what she achieved in three short months.”
As part of her work at the university, Damdinsuren had been drawing water samples from the Khaara since 2006. Last year, perusing a database of researchers on the Internet, she came across Torok’s name and his work on microbial diversity, and she e-mailed him.

Their correspondence led to an application for an international fellowship from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). In May, she learned she was one of three recipients for this year’s award. She is also the first Mongolian researcher to be awarded an ASM International Fellowship. The grant covered the cost of her travel and living expenses on her three month visit to Berkeley Lab.

Damdinsuren’s samples from the Khaara River were drawn as part of a research effort to clean up and maintain this important resource in the midst of a very arid region. Like many rivers in developing countries, the Khaara is at times pristine and polluted; a source of drinking water and a sewer; a place for fisheries and a harbor for disease. Nara’s project focused on 17 collection sites along the river and its tributaries, many of them located near places impacted by human activities, gold mines, agriculture, and wastewater treatment. Filtrate from her samples was preserved and shipped to Berkeley Lab for analysis.

“Nomadic people drink the surface waters in the rural areas,’’ Damdinsuren explains. Waterborne diseases are a significant public health problem in Mongolia. Although pathogens can be a problem, the river also carries beneficial bacteria that can break down pollutants.

At Berkeley Lab, she used the PhyloChip, the state-of-the-art microbial DNA microarray developed by Berkeley Lab, to find out how the microbial community’s structure (and potentially its function) changes along the course of the river. The genetic screen has identified scores of microbes that would otherwise have taken years to culture and identify – if they could be cultured at all.

Damdinsuren said it was a remarkable experience to work with the sophisticated equipment available at Berkeley Lab. “There is no comparison,” she says, to the facilities available to her at the National University, which has 10,000 students. With one million inhabitants — about one-third of Mongolia’s population — Ulaanbaatar is a mixture of tents, modern structures, and Soviet style apartment blocks. The latter is a legacy from the years when this large, land-locked country wedged between the Soviet Union and China was more aligned with the USSR.

Her love of science was sparked by her parents, who were both doctors. Although she initially thought she would become a doctor as well, her interest in microbes led her on a path towards research. “I was a student at a difficult time,” Damdinsuren says of her youth. “Until the 1990’s, Mongolian science was dependent on Russian science. After political reform in Russia, there was political turmoil in Mongolia, and the science almost stopped.”

Damdisuren’s visit to the United States finished this week, and she has flown back to her home country. Thus far, it has been an experience of a lifetime for this young scientist, but there is much more discovery ahead of her. “This Lab is the best,” she says. “I’m so glad to have worked here.”