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George Hamaoui

New Biology Prof Specializes in Microbial Ecology

11/22/17

With the addition of two new biology majors this fall came some new biology faculty, including assistant professor Dr. George Hamaoui, who recently completed his doctorate in microbiology at UMASS-Amherst. Not a stranger to our MCLA community, he previously worked as a laboratory instructor here on campus while he finished up work on his Ph.D.

Hamaoui’s passion for working at a liberal arts college began when he was an undergraduate at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, where he enjoyed the collaboration and the emphasis on teaching. At UMASS-Amherst, he developed a passion for environmental microbiology and also for microbial ecology – a relatively young field, he explained.

“Ecology is the study of organisms, how they interact with each other and their environment. For most ecology courses, you think of animals and plants – and how they interact with food webs. Microbial ecology uses that analysis and performs that analysis on the microbes that live in human bodies, and in soil or water. Then, we map the interactions between the microbes and their environment,” he said. “This field has really blossomed, especially in the last 30 years, as there have been more developments in DNA sequencing technology.”

At UMASS-Amherst, Hamaoui studied how organisms in soil are affected by human-induced changes. “A big part of my dissertation looked at microbial communities in the Amazon rainforest. My advisor had a study site in the western part of Brazil that was a fully functional farm, where they had massive pastures for cattle,” he said.

“My work looked at how do the microbes – specifically microbes that are involved in cycling nutrients in the environment – change? How do they change when they are in a pristine rainforest, but then that rainforest gets cut down through slash-and-burn techniques, to make way for a cow pasture?”

Typically, these pastures are abandoned after just a few years due to poor soil quality, Hamaoui explained. “So, what happens to the microbes when you go from a forest to a pasture, and then you abandon the pasture and it starts to form secondary forest re-growth?”

Also as part of his doctoral thesis, Hamaoui worked at the Harvard Forest Long Term Ecological Research site in Petersham, Mass., the first of a number of long-term ecological research sites established across the country through the National Science Foundation. There, collaborators conduct various experiments in different areas of a forest, such as artificially heating the soil 24 hours a day, seven days a week, using cables that are buried in the soil.

“I wanted to look at those sites as long-term disturbance sites caused by human stress,” he said.

In addition to learning their course content and subject material, Hamaoui hopes his students gain the self-confidence to know that they, too, can do their own research on what most interests them. He also hopes they learn to be persistent.

“When things get difficult, if you keep working at it and working at it, you will find a solution. You need to try to cultivate both self-confidence and persistence, so that you are secure in what you’re doing, and you have the tenacity to continue on and figure out whatever you want to study.”