Rachel Noble

Rachel Noble is the Mary and Watts Hill Jr. Distinguished Professor at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences. She is also a professor in the Department of Marine Sciences within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences and director of the Institute for the Environment’s Morehead City field site. Her research focuses on understanding the abundance and ecology of dangerous bacteria and viruses that are found in the ocean and within seafood.

Rachel Noble collects water samples along the beach in Morehead Cityphoto by Jon Gardiner/University Communications
June 20th, 2018

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A marine biologist or an astronomer. I thought the ocean was a beautiful place with so many curious things to study like waves and tide pools.


“Seeking safe seafood and saltwater.”

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

Because I wanted to be an astronomer, my alma mater recommended I major in engineering. During my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University, I took a course called “Calculus in 3-Dimensions.” After the first few weeks of the course, I rapidly decided that my interests were less engineering-oriented and more biological, so I ultimately decided to major in marine biology.

Noble (right) and her daughter on the ski lift.

Noble (right) and her daughter Anna ride a ski lift in anticipation of a day full of snowboarding.

Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

In Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small French town on the Mediterranean Sea close to Nice, I conducted field work to study phosphate limitation with a large collaborative group of American and European scientists. I was a graduate student and was responsible for bringing many of the supplies, but I forgot a key supply — the dye, acridine orange — which we needed to count bacteria on the microscope on our water samples. It was not something that we could find anywhere in Europe. After talking to a new colleague, Stephan Jacquet, about my situation, he loaned me a small bit of a fluorescent dye that he was using for his flow cytometry work.

I took a seawater sample, poured it through a filter the size of a 50-cent piece, then laid the filter on a few drops of the dye in a petri dish, where it sat while we went to lunch. When we returned, I examined the filter under the fluorescence microscope and lo and behold — I could see not only the bacteria in the water sample, but I could also count the viruses. It looked like a far-away galaxy. I published a paper on the newly developed, rapid method within about nine months of returning to the USA. To this day, that work has more citations than all of my other publications. I learned to be persistent and to think outside the box — something I have carried with me my entire career.

What are your passions outside of science?

I love to run, bike, swim, hike, bodysurf, play ultimate frisbee, and do anything outdoors with my children. I love snowboarding in the powder-filled mountains of Utah. My best ideas come to me in the outdoors.

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