Slava Epstein wouldn’t be mis­taken for Indiana Jones, but a few min­utes in his com­pany, exam­ining an Ama­zonian bow and arrow that reaches to his ceiling tiles, a stone axe from New Guinea, and an Ethiopian coffee maker that sits on his book­shelf, and a vis­itor is soon scouting the office for the trade­mark felt fedora.

Epstein is an explorer on many levels.

A world trav­eler, he emi­grated from Russia 20 years ago with a doc­toral degree in micro­bial ecology from the Insti­tute of Oceanology, Russian Academy of Sci­ences. Epstein is so com­mitted to his new life here that he started like many immi­grants do: painting houses and fences, doing yard work and sealing driveways.

At the same time, he worked as a vol­un­teer then became a postdoc at the Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts, always with the goal to explore the hidden depths of micro­bial research, and the world.

At the time, it was more about get­ting out of Russia than any­thing. I didn’t speak Eng­lish, so I did what I could to sur­vive,” said Epstein, two days before the 20th anniver­sary of his emigration.

Today, Epstein is a recently pro­moted pro­fessor heading up sev­eral cutting-​​edge, fed­er­ally funded research efforts.

The study of the hidden micro­bial world is one of the greatest fron­tiers for dis­covery,” he said. “Unlike the study of ani­mals and plants, in micro­bial bio­di­ver­sity we are just scratching the surface.”

A long­time col­league of biology pro­fessor Kim Lewis, Epstein has part­nered with him to develop a recently patented method to grow pre­vi­ously uncul­tivable microor­gan­isms in the lab. His work on the device, called a dif­fu­sion chamber, has shown its poten­tial to dis­cover new species and bioac­tive com­pounds, including novel antibiotics.

The dif­fu­sion chamber is just one of many dis­cov­eries Epstein is making in a career that seeks to explore micro­bial organ­isms in much the same way he has explored some of the fur­thest reaches of the world.

•In the Cariaco Basin off the coast of Venezuela, Epstein has headed up a five-​​year, National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion backed project to study deep sea microor­gan­isms living without oxygen. Through inten­sive study of sea­water sam­ples, Epstein hopes to shed new light on the types of microor­gan­isms that inhabit this murky, largely unex­plored world. “We’re looking at microor­gan­isms that have evolved under con­di­tions rem­i­nis­cent of pri­mor­dial Earth,” he said. “There is very little sci­en­tific knowl­edge existing on these species, and we have dis­cov­ered a score of organ­isms totally new to science.”

•Epstein is working with two Depart­ment of Energy grants to explore new ways of cre­ating bioethanol, an addi­tive in fuel, through the study of novel microor­gan­isms con­verting cel­lu­lose to fuel. His goal is to cul­ti­vate a new source of bioethanol from wood chips and leaves, and eschews the con­tro­ver­sial use of corn. A second energy depart­ment grant funds his research into microbial-​​based methods to pos­sibly eat through and rid the world of con­t­a­m­i­nating metals, such as ura­nium and other heavy metals, he said.

•Another National Insti­tutes of Health grant funds a project to cul­ti­vate microor­gan­isms impli­cated in human dis­ease. There are over 700 species in the human oral cavity, but most of them have pre­vi­ously been impos­sible to cul­ti­vate in the lab. Using the dif­fu­sion chamber, Epstein is gaining access to species causing dental disease.

Epstein has just moved into a new office at 305 Mugar, just down the hall from one of his two very busy labs. His second lab is located in Nahant, at the Marine Sci­ence Center.

As he selects arti­facts from his world travels from his office book­shelf, he picks up a rock plucked from a for­ma­tion in Ice­land, exactly mid-​​way between North America and Europe. “This rock comes from the geo­logic rift between two tec­tonic plates, so you don’t know if it’s Amer­ican or Euro­pean,” he said.

When Epstein arrived in New York City from Russia with his wife and two chil­dren, he may have felt a little like that rock. Today, he is hap­pily adapted to his new home base, a hub from which he con­ducts novel research, and sets off on inter­na­tional explo­ration and adventure.

Africa is the one area we haven’t seen enough of, yet this is exactly where the human race orig­i­nated,” Epstein said. “So our next trip, to cel­e­brate our wed­ding anniver­sary, will be there—to expe­ri­ence the land of our ancestors!”