Renowned microbial biologist, Professor Craig Cary, leaves a legacy in extreme ecosystems

People around the world are mourning the loss of University of Waikato microbial biologist, Professor Craig Cary.

08 Mar 2024

People around the world are mourning the loss of University of Waikato microbial biologist, Professor Craig Cary, who dedicated his life to research in some of the world’s toughest environments.

Professor Cary passed away unexpectedly on campus last Thursday at the age of 69. A service to honour Craig’s life is being held at the University, (details for service, RSVP and the livestream).

40 years of research

Craig was a highly respected and dedicated member of the University’s academic community, contributing significantly to the research landscape. He dedicated 20 years to the University and more than 40 years to the study of microbial life in extreme environments, including deep-sea hydrothermal vents and Antarctic soils.

Craig participated in over 29 deep-sea expeditions to hydrothermal vents, 45 dives in research submersibles and spent 18 seasons conducting groundbreaking research in Antarctica with over 22 deployments – something only a handful of people across New Zealand have had the honour of doing. His last visit to Antarctica was in November 2023.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, Professor Gary Wilson, who started at the University last week, reflected on his 15-year friendship and collaboration with Craig.

“I am deeply saddened by this tragedy. It was a privilege to know, and to have worked with Craig, and have played a small part in his amazing life,” Gary says.

Craig and Gary on one of their many expeditions, photo taken by Dr Fiona Shanhun.

Gary recalls sharing a tent with Craig for about 15 seasons in remote parts of Antarctica, and even in those challenging conditions Craig was always focused on science and ensuring the integrity of experiments and samples. He was an exemplar of how to make sure scientific data were accurate and reliable.

“The news of Craig’s passing has spread quickly, and we have been inundated with messages from colleagues all over New Zealand and the world who are also mourning this loss.”

Appointments and accolades

Craig held several key roles at the University, including Assistant Vice-Chancellor PBRF, Director of the International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research, Director of the DNA Sequencing Unit and Associate Dean Research within the School of Science, and was Professor of Biomedical, Molecular and Cellular Biology.

His research also established close ties with Antarctica New Zealand where he also served as Deputy Director and then Director of the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute.

Born in the United States, Craig earned his Bachelor of Science at the Florida Institute of Technology in 1976, and a Master of Science at San Diego State University in 1982. He completed his PhD at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1989.

In the early 90s, Craig worked as a postdoctoral Research Assistant Professor at Oregon State University and took his first academic position at the University of Delaware in 1994. During this time, he researched the deepest parts of the ocean aboard the manned Deep Sea Submersible Alvin. Craig joined the University of Waikato in 2004 but continued to work part time at the University of Delaware.

Craig Cary ice-rise sampling for algae in a tide crack in 1974 (Antarctica New Zealand).

Close friend and colleague of 20 years, Deputy Dean, Te Aka Matuatua - School of Science, Professor Ian McDonald, also shared over 15 expeditions to Antarctica with Craig.

“He was my best friend; we started at the University of Waikato on the same day, and we were neighbours for 15 years,” Ian says.

Generous personality 

Beyond his scholarly achievements, Craig was known for his unwavering passion for mentorship. Countless students and colleagues benefited from his guidance, and his positive influence will be felt for years to come.

“He was a huge supporter of the University of Waikato, and the research culture. He would spend hours with his students, helping other people achieve their research goals,” Ian says.

“Craig was a natural storyteller; he could talk to anyone and bring anything to life. I remember he shared a bunk room at Scott Base with journalist, Patrick Gower. Craig talked the socks of Paddy but enjoyed it so much that they filmed a segment in that room, sitting on the bed.”

From Craig’s arrival at Waikato, he began changing the paradigm on microorganisms in Antarctica, with several seminal contributions published with international coauthors in Nature journals.  

Craig, Ian, and Gary worked on ‘blue skies’ research – focusing on what’s in the environment, pushing back the frontiers of the world’s understanding of the fundamental building blocks of Earth's biological systems.

In his early research career at the University of Delaware, Craig made many trips to the deep ocean floor aboard the Deep Sea Submersible DSV Alvin. From the DSV Alvin, Craig and his colleagues conducted in situ experiments and collected samples that allowed them to define previously unknown life around deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

In these deep, dark, very high-pressure environments, Craig and his collaborators discovered life thrived where the hot anoxic fluids mixed with cold oxygenated water in the ocean deep. These thermophilic microbes play an important role in converting chemical energy into food for the rest of the vent community, now known to include over 300 species.

Craig and his team went on to explore and document the ‘wilderness’ of genes existing at the vents, in one of the first ever metagenomic studies of any environment.

Craig and his son, Ky on an Alvin submarine trip in 2004.

Strong ties to Antarctica

Science reporter at New Zealand Herald, Jamie Morton has met some of the world’s more extraordinary scientists, but says it was Craig who stood out amongst the crowd. Not just for his research – understood to have had one of the highest tallies for trips to the ice, but also for his warmth and passion.

“I fondly recall his excitement in explaining to me how taxonomy and advanced DNA technology held the key to revealing the secrets of Antarctica’s poorly understood biological diversity, or how the towering Mt Erebus, which he and his team drilled directly into, hosted a dazzling abundance of extremely unusual micro-organisms,” Jamie says.

“His will be a huge loss for our tight-knit Antarctic community – and Aotearoa science more widely.”

Antarctica has relatively simple ecosystems so by understanding how bacteria operated in that extreme environment, he could also apply that to how they would behave in more complex ecosystems.

Craig made discoveries that fundamentally changed how the scientific community views microorganisms in Antarctica. Most notably, his work led to the recognition of strong biogeographical patterns in Antarctic soil microorganisms, which has had profound scientific and biosecurity implications.

Antarctica New Zealand General Manager Policy, Environment and Health and Safety, Ceisha Poirot, says Craig was one of the few people who would just pick up the phone and have a chat – often giving his professional insight.

“You’d agree to all these things on the phone, and by the time you get back to your desk, you stop and think, what did I just agree to,” Ceisha laughed.

Setting up a climate station at the Cape Adare penguin rookery.

“He had a real infectious enthusiasm to protect the environment, a larger-than-life kind of guy, who was passionate, a master at his craft and able to connect with anyone he knew.”

Antarctica New Zealand General Manager Operations, Simon Trotter, says Craig experienced more in a lifetime than most, and the people who had the honour of meeting him have all been positively impacted in some way or another.

“He was an amazing guy. I remember his unique field camps and how he would push the limits on the approaches to scientific works across the disciplines and the very challenging work on Mount Erebus – it wasn’t just about the science for him, it was also about the science of the body and how it faces the extreme environments.”

Research with an impact

A $1m Marsden grant in 2019, saw a group of researchers complete a world first mission inside the high-temperature soils on the summit of Mount Erebus, the most southern active volcano on the planet. The group was led by Craig and discovered some of the rarest and oldest living organisms on Earth.

In March last year, Craig also undertook a world first survey for bird flu, where he monitored a colony of one million Adelie penguins, trekking nine hours in and around the colony to look for signs of infection. He also developed a robot that can sample planktonic communities under the Antarctic ice shelf to help forecast the future impacts of climate change.

Craig and Karen Romano Young in front of Alvin the submersible in 2004.

Craig’s most famous discoveries centered on Alvinella pompejana, the Pompeii worm, which revealed its remarkable survival capabilities in extreme conditions – making it the most thermal-tolerant organism known to science. His findings not only expanded our understanding of extremophiles but also held potential applications in pharmaceutical production.

In 2021, Craig was part of a group of international scientists that were awarded a $1.8m grant from the world-renown Human Frontier Science Program to study the evolution of the epsilonproteobacteria’s powerful flagellum.

A dedicated family man

While he will always be remembered for the passion he had for science, he was most proud of his role as a devoted husband, father, and grandfather. His family describes him as a loyal, generous, and loving man, who inspired them, along with countless students, colleagues, and young people around the world.

He and his wife Amy shared a love that spanned 35 years, and together they raised two children, Ky and Robin, whom he adored, and a grandson Rio, who he loved deeply.  He was a wonderful provider who took an active role in his children’s life.  He was very proud of them and the partners they had chosen.

Remembering Professor Craig Cary

The University of Waikato community mourns the loss of a brilliant scientist and cherished colleague.

A celebration of the remarkable legacy that Craig leaves behind is being held at The Pā, University of Waikato Hamilton campus, on Saturday 9 March at 1pm.

All are welcome to attend. Please RSVP, and for those who can’t make it, check out the details for the livestream.

Craig spent 18 seasons in Antarctica with over 22 deployments.

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