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Samantha Joye
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Samantha Joye

'Extreme’ Curiosity and a Love of the Ocean Made her Career Choice

Samantha Joye, Ph.D., is a professor of marine science at the University of Georgia where she studies the natural microbial processes that breakdown oil and gas in the environment. Joye received funding from Georgia Sea Grant to assess the impact of coastal development and land use on shallow groundwater quality. In 2010, she also participated in Georgia Sea Grant's Oil Budget Report on the Deepwater Horizon spill. Joye received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

1.       Why does your research matter?

I study the natural microbial processes that degrade oil and gas in the environment. Before the 2010 Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill, this sort of work may have been considered unimportant. In the wake of the spill, scientists have realized how much more we need to know about the microbial processes that break down oil and gas. Increasing our knowledge of critical, fundamental research questions related to microbial processing of oil and gas will improve our ability to understand and predict how microorganisms will respond to unnatural inputs of oil and gas, such as that which resulted from the BP spill.

2.       What do you enjoy most about your work?

Two things: Being out on the ocean and the process of scientific discovery. I love spending time on the water. The process of doing science is like a puzzle. To get the correct answer, you have to assemble all the pieces of a very complex puzzle together. It's challenging, fun, and keeps you on your toes. 

3.       Did the priorities of your research change after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

Yes and no. We were asking questions similar to ones we had asked previously (How do microorganisms metabolize oil and gas? What controls these processes in space and time?), but the time-component – the urgency to accomplish as much as possible in a very short time frame and the urgency of working within the frame of a national disaster – was very different and difficult. Research related to the oil spill became a priority in our group but we still had our other projects so we all had double the work to do. It was intense and challenging.

4.       What did your research contribute to our knowledge of the spill?

Our research team discovered the deepwater hydrocarbon plumes (on May 12, 2010) that emanated from the blown out wellhead and subsequently discovered "oil snow" on the seafloor (in September 2010).

"The process of doing science is like a puzzle. To get the correct answer, you have to assemble all the pieces of a very complex puzzle together."

5.       If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

We desperately need a high sensitivity instrument that we could tow or place in the water to quantify the concentration of all the various components of crude oil and their break down products. Such an instrument would allow us to map petroleum hydrocarbon distributions and the distribution of their breakdown products. This would be a significant advancement in technology that would make a huge difference in dealing with a disaster like the Macondo Blowout from the BP platform explosion.

6.       When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I knew I wanted to be a scientist at a young age, certainly before I was a teenager. I was an extremely curious kid and I asked questions all the time. I loved to read and I loved to learn. Natural curiosity – wanting to form new questions and discover the answer – is the basic characteristic that all scientists share.

7.       What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

For potential oceanographers, I'd suggest Rachel Carson's sea trilogy, The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, and Under the Sea Wind; and Sylvia Earle's book The World is Blue, a very good, though sobering, introduction to the current state of the ocean.

8.       And how about a personal favorite book?

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy is one out of many.

9.       What part of your job as a scientist did you least expect to be doing?

Managing budgets and people; scientists are not trained to do this in graduate school!

10.   Do you have an outside hobby?

I love horses, and I love to read.

11.   What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I would have been a physician had I not become an oceanographer.

12.   Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

I have two: Aristotle and Charles Darwin. Both were holistic thinkers who came up with amazing ideas that literally created or changed research fields.

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