Graduated Master and PhD students 2022-23

The Department of Marine Sciences congratulates all our recent Master and PhD graduates! You worked hard, earned your degree, and enriched our community. Thank you, and best of luck for your next career steps!


Annalisa Mudahy (M.S. 2022)

Major advisor: Craig Tobias

Thesis: Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Water Column Respiration in an Urban Estuary Revealed Using Automated Respiration Chambers


Mathew Holmes-Hackerd (M.S. 2022)

Major advisor: Hans Dam

Thesis: Naupliar Exposure to Acute Warming Shows no Carryover Ontogenetic Effects on Respiration Rates, Body Size, and Development Time of the Copepod Acartia tonsa


Annette Carlson (M.S. 2022)

Major advisor: Samantha Siedlecki

Thesis: Quantifying Interannual Variability of Shelf Nutrients and Associated Hypoxia in St. Helena Bay with New Metrics and Tools


Lingjie Zhou (Ph.D. 2022)

Major advisor: Senjie Lin

Dissertation: Estimate Phytoplankton Carbon Biomass using DNA


Mary McGuinness (M.S. 2022)

Major advisor: Penny Vlahos

Thesis: Examination of Controlling Parameters for Total Alkalinity in Long Island Sound Embayments


Yipeng He (Ph.D. 2023)

Major advisor: Robert Mason

Dissertation: Air-Sea Exchange of Mercury and Its Species in the Coastal and Open Ocean


Patricia Myer (Ph.D. 2023)

Major advisor: Robert Mason

Dissertation: A Critical Examination of the Factors Controlling Methylmercury Uptake into Marine Plankton


Josie Mottram (M.S. 2023)

Major advisor: Julie Granger

Thesis: Refining the Use of Cold-Water Corals as a Proxy for the Marine Nitrogen Cycle Through the Comparison of the δ15N of Diet, Tissue, and Skeleton of Balanophyllia elegans


Michael Mathuri (Ph.D. 2023)

Major advisor: Julie Granger

Dissertation: Physiological Mechanism of Nitrogen Isotope Fractionation During Ammonium Assimilation by Marine Phytoplankton


Brittany Sprecher continues science in Germany and California

By Ewaldo Leitao

Brittany Sprecher finished her PhD in December, 2020, and soon after she moved to Germany to continue her investigations on phytoplankton molecular biology. In her PhD, Brittany was able to develop molecular techniques to begin to help explain the complexity of dinoflagellates. Dinoflagellates are small eukaryotic cells that can photosynthesize and produce their own energy or, sometimes and, be heterotrophic, eating even smaller cells such as bacteria. Their complexity does not end there. Their genomes are astoundingly large, varying from one third up to 90-fold that of the human genome size. This complexity translates into lots of unknowns on their molecular characterization, that Brittany has bravely shed some light on during her PhD.

Brittany performing experiments
Brittany performing experiments

Ewaldo: Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed. First, can you give me a brief explanation of your work conducted while in UConn?

Brittany: I had the great opportunity to work under Prof. Senjie Lin and Prof. Huan Zhang. My work primarily involved developing transformation methods for dinoflagellates, a complex group of organisms. Additionally, I utilized transcriptomics to gain insights into the molecular characteristics of a recently discovered dinoflagellate. It's fascinating how much we still have to learn about these organisms, as many of their genes remain unknown in terms of their functions. Even key pathways like toxins and bioluminescence, which have significant ecological importance, have missing or poorly understood genes. To address this knowledge gap, I focused on establishing a method to introduce foreign DNA, such as the green fluorescent protein or an antibiotic-resistant gene, into dinoflagellates with the goal that the cells would take up and express the introduced proteins.

Ewaldo: This is super interesting. So where did you go after your PhD? And how did the work at Uconn allow you to get there?

Brittany: After obtaining my PhD, I had the opportunity to do a Postdoc in Germany, which turned out to be an incredible experience. Interestingly, my focus remained on method development, but this time I shifted my attention to diatoms who are endosymbionts of dinoflagellates. The transformation methods for diatoms were comparatively more straightforward, allowing me to complete the method development in just one year, whereas it took four years for dinoflagellates. I believe that the valuable experiences and challenges I faced during my PhD greatly contributed to my success during the Postdoc. The obstacles we encounter along the way ultimately shape us into stronger scientists with enhanced troubleshooting abilities.

Ewaldo: This seems like a great experience, to do your Postdoc abroad.

Brittany: Absolutely! It was truly fascinating to observe the research and graduate school culture in Germany. One aspect that particularly stood out to me was the tradition of having lunch together as a lab. Initially, I found it a bit strange, feeling the urge to quickly return to work. However, I soon realized the immense value of these interactions. During these lunch sessions, we would engage in discussions about science, troubleshoot any issues we were facing, or simply delve into various aspects of life outside of work. This time proved to be exceptionally productive and nurturing for our mental well-being, fostering collaboration and support among lab members. The experience of sharing meals together truly enhanced our ability to collaborate and assist one another with our projects. On the whole, my time in Europe was an enriching experience that expanded my scientific network and broadened my perspective on research.

Ewaldo: Indeed. What are you up to these days?

Brittany: Currently, I have the privilege of working at the University of California, San Diego, on an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biology. I'm actually continuing one of the research chapters from my PhD, focusing on a dinoflagellate species that exhibits native green fluorescence. My project involves utilizing analytical chemistry techniques to determine the structure and potential function of this fluorescent molecule. While analytical chemistry is slightly outside my expertise, I am fortunate to be part of an institution that fosters collaboration, and I have been able to connect with several supportive chemists who are aiding me in this discovery. Additionally, I'm conducting laboratory experiments to identify the conditions under which the green fluorescence changes, and I'm collecting samples from the Scripps Pier to assess the prevalence of this blue-green fluorescence among dinoflagellates locally and hopefully globally by the end of this fellowship.

Extracted Dinoflagellate green
Extracted Dinoflagellate green fluorescence molecule Brittany is currently working on

Ewaldo: Incredible expertises. So what are your next steps? Do you have anything in mind?

Brittany: I'm deeply passionate about dinoflagellates and diatoms, and my aim is to continue delving into these fascinating organisms. Consequently, I will actively pursue academic positions that allow me to further explore and contribute to this field. Additionally, I plan to continue applying for fellowships and grants that can support my research endeavors. My ultimate goal is to make meaningful contributions to our understanding of these organisms and their ecological significance.

Ewaldo: Since you mentioned the struggles of a PhD student, do you have advice for grad students and / or early career?

Brittany: One of the most valuable pieces of advice I received before starting my PhD was to invest time in getting to know my cohort. I cannot stress enough how important this has been for me. The support, camaraderie, and collaboration that I have shared with my cohort has been invaluable in navigating the ups and downs of graduate school. Additionally, I highly encourage graduate students and early career scientists to actively seek out and apply for fellowships and grants. These opportunities not only provide financial support but also open doors for networking and collaborations. Lastly, remember that collaboration is key. Engage with your peers and colleagues, seek opportunities to collaborate, and leverage the collective knowledge and expertise around you. Together, we can accomplish so much more than we can individually.

Ewaldo: Finally, what are your hobbies?

Brittany: In my free time, I absolutely love surfing. Living in California provides me many opportunities to ride waves, and it's always a special experience when I find myself sharing the ocean with playful dolphins or witnessing the graceful dives of brown pelicans in search of food. I am also incredibly lucky to be reunited with Dr. Lingjie Zhou, who has been an incredible support in my life. It has been wonderful to spend time with her again both within the academic setting and in our personal lives.

Lingjie and Brittany
Lingjie and Brittany taking in the views near Lingjie’s SIO office

Brittany and Lingjie enjoying the views outside Hubbs Hall at UCSD
Brittany and Lingjie enjoying the views outside Hubbs Hall at UCSD

Our [student] Life on the Ocean


By Ewaldo Leitao.
When we say we work or study oceanography, it is common for us to be met with a: “Wow, you must spend a lot of time doing cool stuff in the ocean then!” Alas, most of us spend most of our time on a computer. However, cruises are still an essential part of oceanographic research to collect the necessary data or test equipment. In our department, many students have this opportunity to participate in such cruises; all with fascinating and unique research interests. Over the past year, several students joined cruises to get familiar with field techniques, collect their own data, or to better understand their study area. In this piece, graduate students in our Marine Sciences department shared their experiences in cruises that took place from Summer 2022 up to May 2023.

Graham Trolley, graduate student at the Dierssen OPTICS lab went on a cruise to measure microplastics optics in the great pacific garbage patch!

Graham Trolley preparing to deploy a neuston net to collect plastics for his spectrometry measurements.

An example of plastics collected during one of the net tow.

“In the Summer 2022 I participated in the Sea Education Association (SEA) summer cruise through the great pacific garbage patch, which sailed from Honolulu, HI to San Diego CA, starting In late June and ending in late July. SEA typically runs programs with undergraduates, who take part in cruises to learn about oceanography, sailing, and earn course credit. As a grad student, I was able to tag along as a visiting scientist and focus on collecting data.

My research focused on taking optical measurements, such as spectral reflectance, of freshly-collected plastic pieces. Previous work has been published on plastic spectral reflectance properties, but these measurements were made on dried and stored samples. Out in the environment, plastic pieces are likely to have some degree of biofilming growing on them. So, I sought to collect spectral reflectance measurements of freshly collected plastics in order to assess how the presence of biofilms might impact plastic spectral reflectance. Knowing this will be useful for sensitivity analyses seeking to develop a satellite-based ocean plastic detection algorithm.

During the cruise, I conducted daily neuston net tows to collect plastic pieces. Neuston nets are towed along the surface of the water to collect as many buoyant plastic pieces as possible. Once collected, I rinsed the plastics out of the net and into a bucket, then picked them out and aggregated them for spectral measurement.”

Mackenzie Blanusa (left) getting ready to deploy a mixed layer float on the SMODE IOP1 cruise.

Mackenzie Blanusa, physical oceanography graduate student, does a lot of math and computer work, but she had the opportunity to take part in two different cruises in the last academic year! She got some hands-on experience in the first one, and in the second she is participating in the cruise that collects data for her study area in the Brazil Margin.

“I participated in NASA’s Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) IOP1 as part of the science party aboard the R/V Bold Horizon. The cruise took place from 10/06/2022 – 11/04/2022 in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 100 miles offshore of San Francisco, California. The focus of this experiment was to sample ocean fronts that are a few kilometers in size to study their dynamics and effects on vertical transport. The ocean fronts were sampled using aircraft, ship surveying, and autonomous platforms such as wave gliders, sea gliders, saildrones, floats, and drifters. I worked the night shift from 4pm – 4am, running an instrument called an EcoCTD, which measures temperature, salinity, pressure, chlorophyll, backscatter, and oxygen. I also helped with the recovery and deployment of wave gliders and mixed layer floats.

I am currently (03/06/2023 – 04/06/2023) aboard NOAA’s R/V Ronald H. Brown for U.S. GO-SHIP’s decadal reoccupation of A16N in the Atlantic Ocean. I am participating in the first leg of the cruise, sailing from Brazil to Spain. The second leg of the cruise will be sailing from Spain to Iceland. This is a longline hydrographic cruise, where we take CTD casts at many stations along the same longitude line. The CTD rosette has 24 bottles and is deployed to the bottom of the ocean. I am working with Dr. Chris Langdon’s research lab out of the University of Miami. The Langdon lab is leading measurements on oxygen, pH, and total alkalinity. I am overseeing pH measurements using a spectrophotometer. Other groups are taking measurements which include DIC, DOC, CFCs, velocity, temperature, salinity, and biological samples. The best part of my trip so far has been getting to explore Brazil, crossing the equator, and viewing beautiful sunrises every morning.”

Yipeng He, alumnus of the Mason Mercury Lab, studied air-sea mercury exchange in the ocean for his PhD, also had cool research experiences in cruises.

“I was on a scientific cruise - the GEOTRACES GP17 cruise, leaving San Diego (CA) on Nov 13 2022. Going from North Pacific to South Pacific, crossing the Equator, going further south and crossing the Antarctic cycle, and arriving at Punta Arena (Chile) on Jan 25 (2023). The boat was R/V Roger Revelle, which was my second time sailing on this boat. The first time was the GEOTRACES GP15 cruise in 2018. I was collecting samples and measuring atmospheric mercury species, air-sea exchange of mercury species and surface ocean Beryllium-7 profile.”

Yipeng He with his atmospheric Hg speciation system on R/V Roger Revelle during the GEOTRACES GP17 cruise.

Heat tolerance changes across environments and populations

March 27th 2023 - By Ewaldo Leitao.

Climate change is a threat to species persistence. Increasing temperatures affect species differently depending on their habitats, such as land or the ocean. However, species often consist of different populations (groups of individuals that reproduce together) that experience different temperature conditions. And if populations live in these areas long enough, they can genetically adapt to their local conditions. What does that mean? If the same species has a population in an area where it is constantly warm, like the tropics, and another population that lives in colder regions, like Connecticut, then we’d expect the tropical population to handle high temperatures better compared to the population living in colder regions. This kind of diversity within species affects how we think about the vulnerability of the species as a whole. To add another layer, if variation differs for terrestrial vs. oceanic species, we might be missing important information about where climate change will have the strongest effects on the planet.

Matt Sasaki looking at a water sample with a handheld microscope at Lake Okeechobee, FL.

That is what Dr. Matt Sasaki and collaborators investigated in a paper recently published in Nature Climate Change. Their main goal was to assess the heat tolerance (the highest survivable temperature) of populations in many different species, from different realms – terrestrial, freshwater, marine and intertidal. They assessed the vulnerability of species by surveying in the literature from the whole world that measured individual heat tolerance. They compiled and then conducted a meta-analysis of these published data, thereby assessing how the heat tolerance is related to the thermal environment these populations live in.

“This paper came out of the ‘Evolution in Changing Seas’ Research Coordination Network (RCN). Back in 2019 they brought some of us together at Shoal’s Marine Lab for a synthesis workshop and essentially told us to think about questions at the intersection of evolutionary biology and marine science”, said Matthew Sasaki, about the seed of the idea.

"I really enjoyed the collaborative aspect of this project, even though I’ve met most of the co-authors in person only once (or not at all!)"

By measuring how heat tolerance changes between populations of the same species, they found that marine and intertidal species show a decrease of heat tolerance between populations as the environment gets colder, but that was not observed in terrestrial and freshwater populations. This was an interesting result, because since the ocean is largely connected, they expected that there would be a smaller differentiation in the ocean compared to land, where geographical barriers can create physical separations, allowing difference in heat tolerance to build up among populations within a species.

Behavior may play a role in the observed patterns. In the terrestrial realm, many organisms can moderate body temperature by seeking shade and forested areas to find refuges from the heat. Even plants can exploit micro-climates. This decreases the amount of evolutionary pressure on terrestrial organisms, when compared to other realms.

Data surveyed to analyze global patterns of heat tolerance. The histogram on the left side shows the higher proportion of studies in the northern hemisphere (Modified after Sasaki et al. 2022).

This study highlights the importance of accounting for evolutionary processes in the context of climate change and species persistence and extinction risk. Larger differentiation of heat tolerance within species may suggest a potential for evolutionary rescue. That is, populations with genes that allow them to be “warm adapted” may rescue populations that are more susceptible to increasing warming.

We asked what was the coolest part about the execution and findings of the project. “This wasn’t a project someone could do alone, and it was really cool to be part of such a big collaborative effort. The findings themselves were also really exciting for us. We expected there to be pretty clear differences between marine and terrestrial taxa, but we were surprised to see that local adaptation seems to be stronger in marine species and not terrestrial species. This goes against some of the traditional paradigms (that marine species’ are more often homogenized by larval dispersal, for example), and hints at a cool role of behavioral thermoregulation in shaping patterns in evolutionary adaptation.”

“This was definitely a pandemic pet project. I won’t say the pandemic helped us make progress though. This ended up being something we worked on a little bit each week for a couple years. Maybe that helped us put together a more robust product (slow and steady wins the race?). I really enjoyed the collaborative aspect of this project, even though I’ve met most of the co-authors in person only once (or not at all!). Having to do everything virtually definitely changed the nature of the collaboration (more written exchanges, less whiteboard brainstorming) but I think we made it work. We’ve just started working together on a couple new projects that build from this initial work, so it must not have been too terrible.”, said Matt.

Meet Dennis Arbige

By Ewaldo Leitao.

For the longest time, Marine Science students and staff have known who to email first with any worries or equipment malfunctions: Dennis Arbige. Until recently, Dennis was the manager of our Marine Sciences Building, but Dennis has been so much more than a manager. A man of many hats, Dennis not only knows the building like the back of his hand, but is also a talented electrical engineer who deals with a multitude of equipment (and their problems) allowing research to go as smoothly as possible – always with a smile on his face. Dennis has now retired, after 29 years of service to the department. We conducted an interview to learn more about his path, his past, and the changes he saw while working here.

Dennis, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. What has been your career path and how did you get here?

Dennis: It’s my pleasure! So, I grew up with Jacques Cousteau books’. I think the first book I read cover to cover was a Jacques Cousteau book because I had to read it in high school and it was only 70 pages, so I picked that. I was like “Oh, this is pretty interesting” how they do scuba and things like that. I then became interested in oceanography, while growing up near the ocean in Rhode Island. In high school I went to the Coast Guard to get money for college. I wanted to be a marine science technician in the Coast Guard. I wanted to go out and measure things like salinity and temperature, and I thought that would be pretty cool. But when I got to the Coast Guard they were like “well, we don’t do this anymore”. So I became an electronic technician.

EL: How did you come back to oceanography?

Dennis: During my four years in the Coast Guard, I was stationed all over the country. I was in Boston for a while, and they used to fly me over on a helicopter as an aid to navigation, working in lighthouses and things like that. This was about the time they were changing to automated lighthouses, so they would drop me off on these crazy little lighthouses all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I worked with a team, and installed things like fog detectors, etc. This was back in the early 80s. Every single installation had its challenges, because these were all old structures. It was super fun, these lighthouses were historical and cool. So I did that for four years, and when I left the Coast Guard I joined Rutgers University for an electrical engineering degree. I worked in New Jersey for a while, and while I was there I got interested in physical oceanography. There were people working on satellite stations and satellite dishes, for NASA and NOAA. So I became interested in what they were doing, remote sensing, sea surface temperature, and things like that. I started taking graduate courses in sea-water interaction, because they didn’t have any physical oceanography courses.

Dennis working on an acoustic modem mounted on the Montauk Point (MP) buoy, around the year 2000

Dennis recovering a remotely operated vehicle while onboard the RV Neil Armstrong (WHOI)

EL: So did you finish grad school and applied for jobs in oceanography?

Dennis: When I was still in grad school someone sent me a job application for a place called Ocean Surveys, in Old Saybrook in CT, I interviewed and I got the job. They did a lot of bathymetry and ocean sensing, near shore coastal stuff. So actually while I was in Ocean Surveys, I worked in the attic, with these slanted roofs. One day I heard this voice complaining, one of the customers kept bumping his head on the ceiling, and I was like “who is that guy?” My colleague told me this tall guy was from the UConn Marine Sciences department, his name was Frank Bohlen. So I ended up sending letters here to UConn, because I thought that “this place sounds like fun”. Actually Frank said: “hey, come on in, we can talk”. There was another wave of retirements at that time, in the 80s, so eventually, I got a job. I came here as an electronic research technician, 29 years ago. And I just never left.

EL: You jumped from industry back to academia sort of in a way. Was there something that appealed to you in this academic environment?

Dennis: Yes, it seemed that it was more fun, it had more variability. When I was here I worked as a scientific diver, and I also had some boating experience. Back in the day there were fewer people here, so I got to run small boats and to dive. I used to tell my wife: I would do this job for free, and she would reply “you better stop saying this”. It was fantastic, it was so much fun being here.

EL: You’ve seen a lot of changes here clearly, including this building being built. Can you talk a bit about how it was to experience that?

Dennis: When we got this building, that was a game changer. We went from the old building to this new building in 1999- late 2000s. The faculty got to design this building from the floor to ceiling. They basically got a piece of paper and were asked “what do you guys want?”. The faculty decided to have environmental chambers, a wet lab, a hydrodynamics lab, etc. And so it happened, and that was thanks to Dave Cooper who had a lot of influence, and he was a very smart guy. The new building put us on the map basically. A couple of years later we also went from the old RV UCONN to the RV Connecticut. When we got the floating docks, all of the facilities were consolidated in one location, here.

EL: In this building, would you consider that you’re a jack of all trades and master of all? Haha

Dennis: Master of none! That’s what you mean! OK, at this point I know a lot about this building. It’s funny to even talk to the trades people that we hired to come in here, I tell them: “pay attention to that because that will affect x, y and z, which will affect something else” and so on. It’s good to pass this knowledge along because some of this stuff will be hard if you don’t know about it. This is a complex building with a lot of systems, and they’re all interconnected, but it might not be clear why or how, so that’s something that I had to learn over time, by default, because you keep coming back inside.

EL: What was one of the happiest moments that you experienced in your career?

Dennis: The ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) were really fun! I’ve seen shipwrecks, I've seen crazy fish that I've never seen before. One time we put the ROV in the bottom, and the bottom looked like it was moving. It is all dark and you can’t see much, so as the ROV was approaching the bottom we saw that it was covered with shrimp. These shrimp were like 4-6 inches long! We were trying to find a place to land not to crush all these shrimp, because they were everywhere. We were off of North Carolina. The captain and the crew were all fishermen at some stage in their lives, and they were all going crazy, like “we never seen shrimp this thick before!”. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my life.

EL: You’ve seen so many cohorts of grad students. Do you have any advice for younger students?

Dennis: Don’t be intimidated by the faculty and staff, because they're good people. If you have a question you should just go and ask. We all want you to succeed. Everybody will pretty much go out of their way to help you, to make sure that the students succeed. Faculty are just regular people. For example, my own kids used to play soccer with the faculty here, and they realized that the faculty are just regular people, which greatly helped them get through college. So don’t be afraid to approach them and ask them questions.

EL: And since you mentioned soccer…

Dennis: I know, I can’t go through a conversation without mentioning soccer, haha

EL: When did this soccer thing start here? For how long has it been going on? Were you the one who started this?

Dennis: It has been going on for some time and it actually started with the Coast Guard. Again, the Coast Guard used to have about 200 people working here. They had a huge presence once I first got here. I started playing with the Coast Guard people and when they eventually moved out, they kinda bequeathed their nets to me. Some pop up nets that they owned. At that time it was just me and some other people, including Jim O’Donnell. Soccer has been going on since the beginning.

EL: Who are you bequeathing it to now?

Dennis: Oh, to Michael.

EL: Do you have a retirement plan?

D: My wife has a list of projects that I need to do in the house. So I told her I would do it but I’d have to quit my job. But now I am like, alright. I have actually learned a lot from working in this building and working with the contractors, so that helps me a great deal on how to do these home projects.

EL: But soccer is here to stay, right?

D: Oh yes, for sure. When you do these extracurricular activities your work is still getting done, but it’s getting done in a less formal manner. On the field and on the court. It’s an amazing community.

From microbes to whales: alumna Susan Smith on her career journey

By Ewaldo Leitao.

Dr. Susan Smith graduated in December 2020, during the pandemic, from UConn Avery Point with Dr. George McManus. Her work focused on the ecology and molecular biology of marine ciliates (a kind of eukaryotic microzooplankton). During her PhD, Dr. Smith (Sue) discovered a new genus and species, published the first tintinnid ciliate genome, and formed lasting collaborations with some remarkable scientists. Susan is currently a research scientist at the Mystic Aquarium, where she studies the microbiome of beluga whales.

Q: Tell us a bit about the research you have done during your PhD.

Sue: While at UConn, I had the opportunity to take part in every facet of research—we would take a boat into the Atlantic and sample, bring them back to the lab and do microscopical and experimental work, and then use those same cultures for downstream genomic and genetic analyses. We would often do what my mentor would call “old world” microscope work, but would then take that same single cell and sequence its whole genome, all in the same lab. That kind of work that runs the full gamut of biological research is so rare today, but was such a valuable experience, and really allows you to understand your subject. I think the UConn Marine Sciences Department presents that opportunity far more than your average academic research setting, which is especially important for graduate students.

I actually had the good fortune of doing my B.Sc., M.S., PhD., and my Postdoc at UConn Avery Point (I’m a bit of a stubborn forever-student). I finished my postdoc two months ago (~1.5 years in) and immediately started my new position as a research scientist at Mystic Aquarium (luckily our labs are on the Avery Point campus so I get to keep my parking space and continue my path towards being a permanent fixture on campus).

Sue preparing samples for metabarcoding to analyze whale blowhole microbiome communities

Dr. Susan Smith and Juno, Mystic Aquarium’s male beluga whale

Q: You’ve had the opportunity to teach during your postdoc. How was your teaching and postdoc experience?

Sue: I had the great pleasure of filling in for my (lifelong) mentor and graduate advisor Dr. George McManus when he was on sabbatical, which allowed me to teach his graduate course, Biological Oceanography. Teaching Bio Oce was a unique opportunity to work with higher level students that were serious about their graduate/educational career, and I valued and enjoyed that immensely. Luckily, even with my full time research position at Mystic Aquarium, I get to keep an appointment at UConn, and am scheduled to teach Marine Biodiversity and Conservation this spring semester (still seats left!). I’m extremely grateful to remain a part of both scientific communities.
Continuing a postdoc position in the same lab I did my PhD in allowed me to complete projects I was excited but over-zealous about during my PhD, and also allowed me the autonomy to ask new questions that were a little off track from the direction of the lab. Of course, there’s a major benefit in going to a different lab for your postdoc, especially if you want to change course on your research goals, but these days most PhDs end up doing two postdocs before finding a faculty position, so it’s something to consider.

Q: How did your previous work align with your current job in the aquarium? What are you doing now and what have you planned to do in the aquarium?

Sue: The postdoc project I was most enthusiastic about involved these unique ciliate species that live in cetacean blowholes (as a part of their natural, healthy microbiome). Admittedly, this project all started as a blatant excuse to collaborate with Mystic Aquarium and interact with the beluga whales there. I worked with some REU students (Research Experience for Undergraduate students) during the summers to investigate this more. The major benefit of this work was that it formed a collaboration with Dr. Tracy Romano (VP and Chief Scientist of Research at Mystic Aquarium). Today, my work at Mystic Aquarium largely surrounds host-associated microbiota. To be in a position where you have so many samples and project options that you can’t decide which grant proposal you’re most excited to write, is a great feeling. I also now contribute to weekly sampling efforts, so I get to hang out with whales every week—that’s pretty awesome too.
Part of my work today focuses on how the microbiome of a new animal host changes as they are introduced to a different host population. I also have some other fun projects going on, including genetic sexing of penguins, microbiome analyses in sea turtles, and stress-response tests in stranded seals. In general, my research is focused on answering these questions using non-invasive methods that not only avoid stressing the animals, but also can be used in the conservation of wild populations that are impossible to have close contact with

Sue and colleague Dr. Luciana Santoferrara sampling plankton in the Pacific Ocean

Q: What is the best part about working in the aquarium?

Sue: The best part about working in the aquarium are my colleagues. It quickly became clear that every veterinary staff member, animal husbandry professional, and researcher, are concerned with animal welfare above all else. Further, all Mystic Aquarium research has an application in the conservation of wild (often endangered) populations, and even non-invasive interactions with our animals are extremely regulated, as they should be. Additionally, and although lesser known, MA also puts an enormous amount of effort and resources into our stranding clinic, from seals to sea turtles, where the rapid recovery and release of these animals is of highest priority. These stranders also allow for some opportunistic (non-invasive) research sampling that can go a long way in identifying threats and diseases afflicting wild populations.

Q: Do you have any hobbies and/or activities you do in your free time?

Sue: This question would have worried me as a graduate student, since any energy put towards extracurricular activities would have been an unthinkable waste of time. However, I’m grateful that my current position is structured in a way that prioritizes a separation between work and home, which is something I didn’t realize I needed. Today, I’m happy to spend nights reading some old science fiction novel with a glass of red wine and dogs by my side. However, I also truly get pleasure from my work and will gladly spend a Saturday at a coffee shop with a (likely late) manuscript.