Welcome to my webpage!

Microbes are everywhere, occupying many places on Earth, especially in extreme environments. I am particularly interested in microbial ecology and how communities change depending on the environment.

If you would like to know more please check out my Research Interests page.


Here is our latest paper: Read more here

Verena Starke and Andrew Steele (2014). Thresher: An Improved Algorithm for Peak Height Thresholding of Microbial Community profiles. Bioinformatics 2014; doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btu528



Verena Starke, Ph.D.

Hochschule Kaiserslautern
Amerikastr. 1
66482 Zweibrücken

Email: verena.starke<at>hs-kl<dot>de


As a kid I never knew that I would be a scientist one day. I was born in Gera, in the former East Germany, and I had a pretty normal life as a child. Regarding my future, I could feel that I wanted to do something special someday, but at that time I didn’t know what it was.

When I was 11 years old, the world around me changed very rapidly. The relationship between former West- and East – Germany was about to turn very quickly. The reunification of Germany opened possibilities and opportunities for me I might not have had under former circumstances, and in retrospect it changed a lot for me to in the years to come.

During my late high school years I developed an interest in biology. My biology teacher urged me to study biology at the university after I finished high school. In my first year of biology at the Philipps University of Marburg I became interested in astrobiology as a combination of life and space. My interest for astrobiology began during my undergraduate studies when I attended several meetings and conferences to learn more about the science and research of astrobiology.

After I finished my Diplom (Masters), I was searching for a position that would enable me to play an active role in astrobiology research. I was hired as a technician by Andrew Steele from the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC, where I worked as part of an interdisciplinary group with microbiologists, geologists and geochemists. During that time I also enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Maryland.

The Carnegie Institution afforded me the opportunity to join the AMASE (Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition) group and to obtain field experience in the extreme environment of Svalbard, Norway. I was part of AMASE for 7 years, taking on a logistical role, on-site bio-molecular support during the expedition and, most importantly, my Ph.D. project itself. During my time at the AMASE expedition, I developed an interest in how microbial communities change along environmental gradients, and how the environment influences microbial community makeup.

I might not have really understood as a kid what science means to me, but I do now.


Paper on Microbial Ecology….Read more here


-since 2019 Research / Teaching assistant Hochschule Kaiserslauter in  Zweibrücken, Germany
– 2014 – 2016 Visiting Investigator, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Geophysical Laboratory, USA
– 2012 – 2014 Post-doctoral Research Associate, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Geophysical Laboratory, USA
– 2005 – 2012 Pre-doctoral Research Associate, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Geophysical Laboratory, USA (advisor: Dr. Andrew Steele)
– 2006 – 2012 PhD Graduate student in the Marine-Estuarine-Environmental Sciences (MEES) Graduate program, University of Maryland, USA (advisor: Dr. Frank Robb)
– 2004 Diplom (Masters) in Biology, Philipps University of Marburg, Germany
– 2001 Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) Internship, Houston, USA
– 2000 Internship at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Koeln, Germany
– 2000 Vordiplom (intermediate Diplom) in Biology, Philipps University of Marburg, Germany
– 1997 high school diploma, Germany

ResearchGate Link: HERE

Recent Posts

AMASE / Svalbard Impressions


I have been very fortunate to be part of the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) over the last years.

AMASE logo

Svalbard is an archipelago north of Norway, stretching between 77 and 80°N latitude. Geologic characteristics of Svalbard provide analogs to conditions on Mars, including low temperatures, thick permafrost, volcanoes, dry, desert like climate, and sparse vegetative cover. The major goal of the Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) has been testing protocols, procedures and equipment needed to detect traces of organic chemistry for future robotic Mars missions. AMASE began in 2003 and had a crew that consisted of over a hundred scientists and engineers from institutions around the world over the years. AMASE was run by Hans Amundsen (Expedition Leader – EPX Norway), Andrew Steele (Science Leader – Carnegie Institution of Washington), Marilyn Fogel (Management team – Carnegie Institution of Washington), Pan Conrad (Management team – JPL) and Lianne Benning (Management team – University of Leeds, UK). NASA (through an Astrobiology Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) grant A Steele, PI) as well as the European Space Agency (H Amundsen – PI) were testing instruments for the NASA Mars Science Laboratory mission and the ESA ExoMars mission.

17August 2007, RV Lance…our home for two weeks during the expedition (photo by Kjell Ove Storvik)

I have been part of AMASE for 7 years, taking on a logistical role, on-site bio-molecular support during the expedition and, most importantly, my Ph.D. project itself. Preparing for an expedition like this takes several months. The main logistics (such as hiring the ship), goals for science and where to go during the expedition were organized by the management team. I mostly took care of the logistical issues on the Carnegie side for our team. I think one of the major hurdles are the logistics around shipping instrument equipment, cryoshipper, personal equipment and consumables out of the US into a different country and then back to the US. Oh boy, American Customs can be very complicated…and there are so many Schedule B numbers out there, each one specific to an item and needed for each single sock and each instrument and each pair of boots (and that depend if they are made for men or women and if they have rubber or leather or steel in them…all different numbers, btw…painful) to be shipped out of the country. The instrument equipment is very expensive and needs to go through the proper channels for safe travel and to avoid import and export fees going to Svalbard and back to the US. Some of the instruments were still in a prototype stage and invaluable, being hard to put a value on them.

Molecular biology and geochemistry sometimes require chemicals and reagents that are not allowed to be transported by planes. So, one other task of mine was to organize an order of chemicals and consumables in Norway to be shipped to Svalbard. Our main distributor was VWR Norway, who could ship most of the things needed up to Svalbard by boat. For anyone who had samples that needed to be frozen for the transport back home, we got liquid nitrogen from the German Research Station in Ny-Alesund on Svalbard (Thank you!!!!). And of course, there are hotels and flights for the Carnegie team, but that was minor compared to organizing the shipment.

17. August 2007; Maia Schweizer working in the clean hood on ship

And then there was my own PhD project too…microbial ecology and endolith colonization of a geothermal spring in Svalbard. Organisms living inside rocks are fascinating…especially the way they get in there.

11. August 2010; Trip to a glacier near Ny-Alesund
[people from left: Dominique Tobler, me, Liane Benning and Marilyn Fogel]

Being able to go to Svalbard, to spend two weeks there and do research (sometimes through the night) that I love to do, made all the stress with the logistics before and after worthwhile! All of us that went on this expedition are very lucky to see and study such a beautiful place….

Our Journey started in Longyearbyen, a town with a long history of coal mining. Longyearbyen now is a “hop” for tourism and research, with restaurants, hotels and shops. UNIS, the university center on Svalbard, offers courses in Arctic Biology, Geology and Climate Research.

Svalbard is the home to polar bears. Although they might seem very cuddly, they are not (well, they are from a distance, but not close by). In fact, before we go on the expedition we all have to go through safety and riffle training. This includes dealing with the cold, respecting the areas you are in, avoiding polar bears and learning to shoot a rifle for emergency situations.

15. August 2011, We all see a Polar Bear, but it’s far away enough (photo by Kjell Ove Storvik)
[people: Mihaela Glamoclija (back), me, Steve Squyres (front), safety guard (right)]

Fieldwork is one of my favorite parts of my research. Svalbard is an amazing and beautiful place. And then when you stand on the deck of the ship at two o’clock in the morning to take a break from work, the sun is shining and everything around you is quiet. At these moments you can just stand there, admire the beauty around you and appreciate how lucky you are as scientist to be there, trying to figure out what make this environment tick. At moments like these you just don’t think about the real world with all its business and stress, but escape into something beautiful.

15. August 2011, Close to the Polar Ice Cap, 2am in the morning (photo by Kjell Ove Storvik)
[people from the left: Francis McCubbin, me, Tor Viscor (back), Steve Squyres, Garret Huntress, Kjell Ove Storvik (front)]

20 August 2005, Jotun Springs (photo by Kjell Ove Storvik)

Svalbard is incredible…I love the differences to what we know, particularly when it snows in August (which just doesn’t feel like summer).

13. August 2010, 3am in Ny-Alesund research station (myself and Dominique Tobler)…just after it has snowed

More to come….stay tuned!

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