Dr. Paula Welander

Dr. Paula V. Welander

Info & Affiliations

Associate Professor, Earth System Science
Stanford University

Ph.D., Microbiology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
M.S., Microbiology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
B.A., Kinesiology, Occidental College, Los Angeles

Excellence in Teaching Award, Stanford University, 2019
Early Career Development Award, National Science Foundation, 2019
GSA Geobiology and Geomicrobiology Division Award for Outstanding Research (Pre-Tenure), 2018
Hoagland Award Fund for Innovators in Undergraduate Teaching, Stanford University, 2017
Terman Fellow, Stanford University, 2014

Paula Welander

Paula is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and a first-generation college graduate who took a circuitous path to find, and then become a leader in, the field of geobiology. As an undergraduate, she planned to be a sports medicine doctor, but then fell in love with microbiology through a research opportunity in college. Inspired to pursue this new passion, she began graduate school in microbiology at the University of Illinois and earned a PhD exploring the physiology of methane-producing archaea using a range of genetic techniques. She subsequently discovered the field of geobiology when she embarked on a postdoc at MIT, using her microbiology and genetics background to study biomarkers originally proposed to signal the presence of ancient cyanobacteria. Paula said that she felt insecure about her lack of a geology background but the encouragement of her postdoctoral advisors, Dianne Newman and Roger Summons, motivated her to continue in the field of geobiology.

As with all of us, Paula’s story is not without its challenges. Three years into her postdoc, her first postdoctoral advisor moved universities and Paula was unable to follow due to her young children. Paula ended up finding a new advisor in the same institution and was exposed to even more geochemistry over the next two years, which ended up being a great opportunity because it showed her how her microbiology background could add a valuable perspective to the largely geochemical biomarker field. The most difficult hurdle for Paula was going through multiple cycles of faculty searches and interviews without getting job offers. At the end of each year that she didn’t get an offer, Paula says she would feel like giving up. She persisted through these rejections by reassessing whether she wanted to pursue a faculty position and re-deciding that yes, she did: she loved the science she was doing and she wanted to train, teach, and mentor future geobiologists! So Paula didn’t give up and ended up landing an excellent Assistant Professor position at Stanford University, where she has thrived—receiving multiple awards and recently earning tenure in 2019.

Paula recently began a program to invite early-career speakers who are minoritized scientists to give talks at Stanford and she also shared some excellent advice for aspiring and early-career geobiologists. First and foremost, she recommends finding a community, either within your school/subdiscipline or outside of academia, to support you. Paula also notes that we all need to understand that there are many structural barriers and inequities that make it difficult to succeed – we need to accept that there is a lot that we can’t control and focus on the aspects we can: doing our science, writing our papers, and living our lives in a way that makes us happy. We should never feel guilty for taking time for ourselves because we all need time to recharge! Paula advises getting involved in your community and engaging in activities outside of science. She says: taking that vacation, reading that book, binging on that TV show, going for that run, or doing those outreach projects, will only enhance your science and your career and make all the hard work worth it.


Highlighted works:

Zeng, Z., Liu, X.L., Farley, K.R., Wei, J.H., Metcalf, W.W., Summons, R.E., Welander, P.V., 2019, GDGT cyclization proteins identify the dominant archaeal sources of tetraether lipids in the ocean: PNAS, v. 116, p. 22505–22511, doi:10.1073/pnas.1909306116.

Zeng, Z., Liu, X.L., Wei, J.H., Summons, R.E., Welander, P.V., 2018, Calditol-linked membrane lipids are required for acid tolerance in Sulfolobus acidocaldarius: PNAS, v. 115, p. 12932–12937. doi:10.1073/pnas.1814048115.

Lee, A.K., Banta, A.B., Wei, J.H., Kiemle, D.J., Feng, J., Giner, J.L., Welander, P.V., 2018, C-4 sterol demethylation enzymes distinguish bacterial and eukaryotic sterol synthesis: PNAS, v. 115, p. 5884–5889. doi:10.1073/pnas.1802930115.

Banta, A.B., Wei, J.H., Gill, C.C., Giner, J.L., Welander, P.V., 2017, Synthesis of arborane triterpenols by a bacterial oxidosqualene cyclase: PNAS, v. 114, p. 245–250, doi:10.1073/pnas.1617231114.

Banta, A.B., Wei, J.H., Welander, P.V., 2015, A distinct pathway for tetrahymanol synthesis in bacteria: PNAS, v. 112, p. 13478–13483, doi:10.1073/pnas.1511482112.




geomicrobiology, biomarkers, lipid biosynthesis, Latinx geobiologists, women of geobiology, first-generation college graduates, work-life balance, passion for teaching, finding a faculty position


Bio written by Jena Johnson, July 2020