I like to call myself a plankton ecologist with deeper interests in how marine microorganisms respond and adapt to their rapidly changing environments. Specifically, I am interested in those that have adopted a mixotrophic lifestyle (such as ciliates and dinoflagellates, which are unicellular plankton). Mixotrophy is broadly defined as the combined ability to acquire energy from light and consumption of organic material within a single organism. I research mixotrophs of both the New England shelf and the Chesapeake Bay and will continue to target these locations. I am particularly interested in the woefully under sampled winter months, which is when both areas are experiencing warmer than average temperatures. In my research, I leverage long-term data sets to understand the natural history of these organisms along with physiological measurements, both in situ (in their natural environment) and in the lab with cultures, to understand the ‘why’ of their seasonal trends. I do this with a combination of modern molecular tools, imaging flow cytometry (imagine an underwater microscope constantly taking pictures of these cells), as well as traditional plankton sampling methods, all of which compliment each other.
How did you get to where you are now, in terms of your education and training in science?
I grew up in household of scientists who, at some point in their careers researched the Chesapeake Bay so you can say I have come full circle. There is an aquatic research laboratory located on Jefferson Patterson Park in Calvert County, MD that became my second home and the researchers were my second family. I was raised to respect the Chesapeake Bay and appreciate its natural resources. In middle school and high school, I researched the effects of harmful algal blooms on native oyster populations. For my undergraduate work at Hood College, I continued to do research, shifting to larger invertebrates, from invasive crayfish to sea anemones. During the summer after my junior year, I became a Summer Student Fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and this fantastic internship was the major stepping-stone for where I am now. My summer advisor, Dr. Heidi Sosik, encouraged me to explore a project that evolved into my Ph.D. thesis, studying the natural history of ciliate micrograzers on the New England shelf. I was introduced to more than just ciliates, as her lab was rooted in bio-optics and oceanographic instrumentation. I was encouraged to tinker with various available instruments by a WHOI researcher, Dr. Robert Olson, and even though I did not have an engineering background, I found confidence in my abilities to make what I needed. For a portion of my thesis, I developed new imaging flow cytometry instrumentation to detect more complete populations of ciliates than previous instruments could. During my time at WHOI, I was also able to participate in oceanographic cruises in places like the Gulf of Maine and the Arctic Ocean. After my thesis, I did a postdoc with Drs. Sairah Malkin and Greg Silsbe at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) Horn Point Laboratory, studying the quantitative role of mixotrophic dinoflagellates in the Chesapeake Bay; work I am continuing now.
As I mentioned above, I am interested in wintertime mixotrophic microorganisms. In particular, I am studying the Chesapeake Bay dinoflagellate, Heterocapsa rotundata, that uses mixotrophy as a tool to have a competitive advantage during a time of year when sunlight is low. With collaborators at the UMCES Horn Point Laboratory, I am conducting seasonal surveys of this organism in the Bay to quantify its role in wintertime carbon flows. I am also interested in the molecular underpinnings of mixotrophy and plan to explore these questions with samples taken from the surveys along with culture experiments to induce mixotrophy in this organism. I welcome any student who is interested in experimental culture work!
What is your favorite aquatic organism and why?
What a question! While the mixotrophic ciliate Mesodinium rubrum is ‘flashy’ in function (it can steal and divide chloroplasts from its prey), my favorite is the mixotroph Laboea strobila, which I would say is ‘flashy’ in looks. It has a very distinct morphology, which makes it a prime candidate for imaging flow cytometry. During my Ph.D. thesis, I called it ‘the one that got away’ because even though it exhibited amazingly regular patterns, I was never able to get out in the field at the right time to answer all of the questions I had about this predictability.
What classes will you teach in the fall? Which are you most excited to teach?
In the fall, I will be teaching Principles of Biology. I will be primarily teaching topics like ‘eukaryotic cells’ and ‘photosynthesis’, which happen to be near and dear to me. I am most excited to teach my Oceanography course in the spring. I hope to build on Coastal Ecology and move towards open water environments where nutrients are limited and light can be low (at depth). The oceans are also significant regulators of our global climate so understanding this ‘last frontier’ is crucial.
At St. Mary’s, the students have an unofficial slogan “Keep St. Mary’s Weird.” Do you have any endearing quirks that fit with this motto?
I am always down for a Sci-Fi movie marathon and I’ve been known to frequent a few Comic-Cons!
Is there anything I didn’t mention that you’d like to add?
As I mentioned above, I love to tinker. So if there is anyone who is interested in trying to develop new tools for the lab, please stop by!