Dr. Deborah Kelley

Meet Deborah Kelley

Dr. Deborah Kelley is a marine geologist who studies hydrothermal vents and how volcanoes support life in the absence of sunlight. Read the full text of Deborah's interview below to learn more about her job.


Hear Dr. Kelley talk about her job, some of the tools she uses to conduct research, and about the 2005 Lost City Exploration. Download (mp4, 111 MB).

View transcript

About the Job

What is your title?

I am an Associate Professor in Oceanography.

Where do you work?

I work in the School of Oceanography  at the University of Washington.

Do you travel often?

My travel schedule can be somewhat insane sometimes. One of the things I love about going to sea is working with a group of scientists for 30-60 days at sea and traveling to ports of the world like Cape Town, South Africa, or Panama City. I am usually gone approximately one week a month now to workshops and conferences across the U.S.

What are the educational requirements for your job?

To be a professor in geological sciences/marine geology and geophysics, I had to complete my undergraduate degree with a Bachelor of Science, a Masters, and a Ph.D. in geology.

What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?

I believe it is in the range of $65,000 to $100,000/year.

How many hours do you work per week?

I usually work 70 hours per week.

Job Duties

Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.

My current research focuses on five main things: 1) exploring how volcanoes support life in the absence of sunlight—the connection between geological and biological processes; 2) understanding how and why the Lost City hydrothermal system formed, how it has evolved through time, and what kinds of life lives there; 3) developing new sensors that go inside the walls of hydrothermal vents to examine the extreme conditions under which life thrives, survives, and expires; 4) exploring for new vent systems along the world's mid-ocean ridges; and 5) working on developing a regional cabled observatory on the seafloor (called NEPTUNE ) that will fundamentally change how we study and interact with the ocean in the next few years.

One of the best things about this research is that I get to go to sea usually every year and work and learn from geologists, chemists, and biologists who are doing integrated science at these systems. At sea, I routinely use the robotic vehicles Jason, Ropos and Tiburon to explore, image, and sample hot spring systems. I also routinely use the three-person submersible Alvin to dive to the seafloor (at depths between 2,200 and ~ 4,000 meters) and look at vents and underwater mountains up close. I would drop almost anything, any time to have the opportunity to dive in the submersible.

Most recently, I have started to learn about how to engineer sensors that will withstand the harsh environments of vents. As a geologist, I had never had any experience in instrument development, but I am very much enjoying learning something new and working with “true” engineers who know what they are doing. The instrument I am working on and which is now deployed in vents is a microbial incubator that we hope will help answer what the upper temperature limit to life is on this planet.

In addition to these projects, I am helping to plan the NEPTUNE undersea fiber-optic cabled observatory. This system will be located off the coast of Washington and British Columbia. The hope is to have hundreds of instruments on the seafloor and throughout the water column all connected to Internet 2 via the cable. Scientists will be able to “talk” with the instruments from their offices and interact with them on the seafloor. High-definition cameras will bring live imagery of the vents into offices, homes, and schools so that everybody can “experience” the vents and other seafloor environments in real time. This system will monitor earthquake activity, aide in weather prediction, be able to track fish and mammal migrations, and help us learn about the health of our changing oceans. It is an exciting project to be involved in and offers the chance for profound new discoveries.

What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?

The most fascinating thing I have ever done was to be involved in the discovery of the Lost City hydrothermal field. To dive with Jeff Karson (Duke University) and Patrick Hickey (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) to the seafloor and see the limestone chimneys for the first time is an experience I will never forget. I am very grateful for this and feel very lucky.

What are the personal rewards of your work?

The personal rewards for work in oceanography are huge. Certainly we are lucky to be able to travel and see places no one has ever been to before. It is incredibly satisfying to work very hard on a project and then one day make a major breakthrough. In addition to the satisfaction of making new discoveries and evolving to new ways of thinking about how our planet works, I think my greatest reward is being able to work with a group of incredibly nice, often generous people (scientists, students, ship crew) who are all working towards a common goal. This may sound corny, but it is true. The people I work with are very fine, thoughtful individuals with strong personalities. I believe it is a gift to have the opportunity to work with and learn from them.

How does your work benefit the public?

The oceans are critical to the health of our planet, yet we know relatively little about how they work in detail. There is great interest in understanding hydrothermal vent environments now because of what they may tell us about how life evolved on our planet. The novel microbial communities that thrive at vents may offer new pharmaceuticals that may help fight diseases and provide enzymes important for industrial applications. One of the things I most enjoy about my job is teaching undergraduates and giving talks to the public. I believe the community benefits from this because if we do not understand how our planet works, then it is impossible to know how we are harming or helping our environment.

What else could someone with your background do?

Someone with my background could work for companies that conduct environmental work or with the oil industry and/or teach at a variety of schools.

About Deborah

What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?

As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to participate in sea-going research expeditions onboard the University of Washington R/V Thomas G. Thompson. I loved being out at sea, looking for long distances and seeing nothing but the sky and the waves, and I much enjoyed the process of exploration and discovery that occurred during those cruises. I was fascinated by underwater volcanoes and learning how they erupted. Later, with the discovery of black smoker systems on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, I became fascinated with the connection between volcanoes and life on and within the seafloor.

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

Dr. John Delaney at the University of Washington was and still is one of my most important mentors. As an undergraduate, he encouraged me to think about what I wanted to do and the kind of scientist that I wanted to become. He provided me with very important learning experiences at sea as an undergraduate and always encouraged me to ask questions and think beyond my comfort level at that time. From him, I also learned to follow-through on tough problems and not give up even when I wanted to quit sometimes. Most recently he has taught me to not be afraid to think and dream about large problems and what it takes to make very complex, important science projects (e.g., the Neptune Project).

Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?

I would definitely have taken more math, chemistry, and biology classes. I think the most important new discoveries will be at the interface of disciplines such as geology and biology, and I wish that I had a stronger background in some of these other areas.

What obstacles did you encounter along the way?

Perhaps my hardest obstacle was having my father die right when I finished high school. I ended up working nearly full time to put myself through school, which was difficult. I think another difficulty initially was that my sister, brother, and myself were the first ones to go to college in our family. My father had finished eighth grade and my mom high school. I am very proud and grateful to both of them for encouraging us to do well in school. But, when I first went to college, I did not really know much about it and it was initially a hard transition. I wish that math and chemistry had been easier for me to learn and that I was better at these subjects. I was stubborn and would not give up on these classes, but I would be a better scientist if I could be more quantitative.

What are your hobbies?

My hobbies include hiking, sailing when I get a chance, and reading.

Career Timeline

Interests in Elementary School:

Generally being a kid, being outside, and playing hard. Playing the flute, and reading. Playing any sport I could, but focusing on swimming.

Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:

I was a late bloomer—my third and fourth years as an undergraduate.

First Marine Science Class:

Third year of college.


1983 Bachelor of Science – University of Washington
1987 Masters of Science – University of Washington
1990 Ph.D. in Geological Sciences - Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia

First Career-related Job:

Working as an undergraduate in oceanography. Post graduation, working as a postdoctoral Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Employment Journey/Career Transitions:

Age 13-18: Taught swimming
Age 18-20: Music (Oboe) and Russian major
Age 21-22: Graphic design major
Age 22-28: Research aide in oceanography, marine geology
Age 29: Completed Masters in Geological Sciences at the University of Washington
Age 32: Completed Ph.D. at Dalhousie University, Halifax Nova Scotia
Age 33-35: Postdoctoral work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Age 36: Post doctoral employee than faculty member at the University of Washington

Other Accomplishments:

I am becoming more and more involved in helping formulate where our community is going in the future. To do this, I now chair the Deep Submergence Science Steering Committee (DESSC) and am on the RIDGE Executive committee. DESSC provides help and guidance on the future of community assets such as the robotic vehicle Jason and Alvin. RIDGE is an interdisciplinary, integrated science program that has chosen three key study sites in the world's oceans to look at the linkages among geological, chemical, and biological processes at mid-ocean ridges and submarine vents. I have been involved with the REVEL program  since its inception in 1996 (REVEL: Research and Education, Volcanoes, Exploration and Life). This program takes middle and high school teachers to sea and lets them participate in sea-going research. It was one of the first programs to have a live, interactive web site at sea. Over 80 teachers have now participated.