My research on octocoral disease and immunity in Puerto Rico is in collaboration with Dr. Ernesto Weil at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. My dissertation research focuses on the Caribbean sea fan, Gorgonia ventalina, a well-characterized octocoral species that harbors a variety of pathogenic organisms.
Co-infection is the reality for organisms living in a natural environment, but relatively little has been done to uncover the role of multiple parasites in the wild. Laboratory research points to important ways that parasites can interact within a host, which can lead to both ecological and evolutionary consequences. However, field studies of co-infection are sparse. My research on G. ventalina contributes to the emerging body of work on natural co-infections by evaluating the importance of environmental factors, host resources, and host immunity. Relevant publication: Octocoral co-infection as a balance between host immunity and host environment
Host-parasite interactions are a normal part of healthy ecosystems, but environmental stressors can tip the balance in favor of the parasite. For example, conditions that lead to suppressed host immune function can allow a parasite to devastate a host population. In addition to the many large scale stressors that corals must contend with, there are important local stressors that further influence coral health. Pollution is a local stressor that can have devastating effects on marine life, but may also be more tractable to resolve at a local scale. One aspect of my dissertation research focuses on the combined effects of warming oceans and pollutants on disease in G. ventalina. I have also studied the relationship between pollution and disease in Scleractinian corals in Hawaii. Relevant publication: Linking sewage pollution and water quality to spatial patterns of Porites lobata growth anomalies in Puako, Hawaii
The host immune system is central to understanding the ecology and evolution of infectious disease. In addition, studying immunity in marine systems can shed light on the evolution of immunity given the ancient immune systems at work in many marine organisms, such as corals.
I am currently exploring the relationship between ecological factors and immune function in G. ventalina in the Caribbean. One of my projects focuses on the role of the immune system during co-infection, while another investigates the unexpected outcomes of multiple stressors for coral immunity. I am using a combination of histology measurements and gene expression analyses to further the understanding of the immune system in G. ventalina. I have also studied immunity in sea stars, lobsters, seagrass, and cattle. Relevant publication:Up in Arms: Immune and Nervous System Response to Sea Star Wasting Disease
Coral microbial communities
Microbes can play an important role in both healthy and diseased corals. In addition to the microbes that cause disease, there are also microbes that are essential for healthy function and provide critical services to the coral host. I am interested in the role the environment plays in shaping these microbial communities and my dissertation research investigates this question in G. ventalina. In the future, I hope to further pursue questions about the microbial communities in complex environments and the ensuing effects on host populations over short and long time scales. Relevant publication: Persistent shifts in Caribbean coral microbiota are linked to the 2010 warm thermal anomaly
Marine disease in a changing ocean
Outbreaks of marine infectious diseases have caused widespread mass mortalities, but the lack of baseline data has precluded evaluating the hypothesis that disease is increasing in the ocean. I am currently working on a project to assess multi-decadal trends in marine disease across the recent decades of dramatic, global change.
Local adaptation and eelgrass wasting disease
In collaboration with Morgan Eisenlord, another Harvell lab graduate student, I am exploring the ecological and evolutionary context of eelgrass wasting disease in the Pacific Northwest. Given the spatial variation in disease prevalence and severity, we are interested in the potential for host and parasite local adaptation in this system. In this project, we are investigating the effects of host and strain variation at Friday Harbors Laboratories.
Future Research Interests:
Immune adaptations, using metagenomics to study the consequences of microbial interactions for health and disease, invasive species, local adaptation, understanding ecology and evolution across scales
Friday Harbors Laboratories, Graduate Research Grant Betty Miller Francis ’47 Fund Cornell Graduate School, Research Travel Grant National Geographic Young Explorers, Young Explorers Grant American Academy of Underwater Sciences, Kathy Johnston Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Sustainable Biodiversity The Explorers Club, Student Grants Paul P. Feeny Graduate Research Fund Sigma Xi, Cornell chapter Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Graduate student grant Sigma Xi, National chapter National Science Foundation, Graduate Research Fellowship Presidential Life Sciences Fellowship, Cornell University