Spotlight on cave explorer Hazel Barton

Learn more about the field of cave exploration in this interview with Hazel Barton

Spotlight on cave explorer Hazel Barton

Q: How did you get into caving?

A: When I was fourteen, I took an Outward Bound course in England, and we went into a cave, and I just felt really comfortable. There were probably about thirty kids and one guide, and everybody was so scared, but it didn't faze me at all.


Q: How do you do what you do? Describe your work process.

A: Cave research is just one part of what I do. I'm trying to understand different kinds of extreme environments and the microorganisms that inhabit them, and the sky's the limit on what you would consider an extreme environment. For example, the human ear is an extreme environment because you've got the waxes and the acids and everything else in there. The tuberculoid lung, which I'm working on now, is also an extreme environment.

I go to these really cool places, like the Yucatan Peninsula, and collect samples, and other times I'm in the lab and I'm pouring a nasty lung out of a Ziploc baggie into a plate. Then we take the samples, and pull out the genetic signature of the organism we're interested in, in the lab. We compare it to everybody else's genetic signature to see how its DNA has changed over the course of evolution. That gives us an indication of where the organism is located on the tree of life and what chemicals and environmental factors it needs to survive.


Q: How many people are involved in what you do?

A: If I'm going on a caving trip, two or three, and there are sixteen people in the lab.


Q: What do you like/dislike about what you do?

A: A hundred and fifty years ago when Darwin described how the different kinds of life evolved and the phylogenetic relationships on the tree of life, he said it wouldn't be possible to describe bacteria in the same way until the tools were developed that allowed us to look at bacteria in new ways. Because of the developments in molecular biology over the past fifteen years, now we have these tools, and we can apply Darwin's theories to bacteria. That is really exciting.

Also, the medical implications are limitless. The problem we have is that ninety percent of antibiotics are useless. So with things like multi-drug-resistant strains of diseases like tuberculosis, you've got to come up with something that the bacteria that cause disease won't be able to defend against. We aim to find microorganisms from one of these alternate kingdoms that can help fight these diseases.


Q: What was high school like? Were you into caving?

A: When I was sixteen, I took a sports elective in caving in high school, and just started going on a weekly basis and never stopped.


Q: What other kinds of things do you do? What would you like to try?

A: I love photography. I've taken some great photojournalism courses. I like to climb mountains in the summer and cross-country ski in the winter.


Q: Tell us about your work with extremophiles.

A: We used to think that there were environments where life just couldn't survive, and we are finding that that's not the case. We are finding microscopic organisms, or bacteria, that can. We call them extremophiles...

This article provided by


Trending Articles

Your Path College Search

Featured: Apply for Student Loans & Refi  


Register Step 1 of 2

* Indicates required fields.
Add Interest

By pressing the continue button, I hereby consent to receive autodialed and/or pre-recorded calls from NextStepU and their partners, regarding their products and services, at the phone number above. I understand that consent is not a condition for attending any school.

  • Oops! Seems there were some errors above..

Login Required

  • Your Path

    Your Path

    Get customized college, life and career planning with step-by-step instruction and resources, all catered specifically to you.

    Register FreeSign In
  • Scholarships

    Scholarship Search

    Find over 2.2 million scholarships catered to a wide variety of your interests and strengths.

    Register FreeSign In
Search for more than 2.2 million scholarships!