Lihini Aluwihare, a chemical oceanographer, was born in Sri Lanka and lived in Zambia and England before moving to the United States for college and post-graduate studies. Arriving at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in 2000, she studies the cycling of carbon and nitrogen in the oceans using light isotope tools and organic matter chemical characterization.
As a marine geochemist, her work revolves around trying to read the messages encoded in molecules that maintain microbial life, facilitate ecosystem interactions, and contribute to long-term carbon and nutrient storage. While her research focuses mainly on naturally occurring molecules, her tools also enable her to examine the human fingerprint in aquatic environments through detection of anthropogenic organic compounds. Currently, her lab is interested in many projects including: the cycling of nitrogen in the eastern North Pacific Ocean, including in low oxygen environments, and its sensitivity to natural and anthropogenic climate change; the cycling of the longest-lived organic compounds in marine environments; biotic and abiotic transformations of organic compounds that result in organic matter accumulation in aquatic environments, including in coral reef environments and high elevation lakes; the microbial-metabolite “interactome” in surface aquatic environments that maintains or disrupts microbial ecosystem interactions, including the role of marine toxins; the fate of anthropogenic organic compounds in the coastal ocean; and quantifying carbon flux through the microbial food web. A common theme that underpins her work is her commitment to developing new analytical tools and research frameworks to examine a particular scientific question from a different perspective.
As a result of her unique path into oceanography and academia generally, Aluwihare is strongly committed to diversifying the faculty and creating a more equitable climate at UCSD. She achieves this through her service at multiple levels including through educating underrepresented scholars, as an academic leader at UCSD working to identify and combat institutionalized racism and sexism, and by encouraging and supporting her graduate students to participate in outreach activities. Some of our lab’s favorite education and outreach partners are the Ocean Discovery Institute in San Diego and the SIO SURF REU program.
Aluwihare received her bachelor’s in chemistry and philosophy from Mount Holyoke College and her Ph.D. in Oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography.
(Updated February 2021)