Centre students conduct marine biology research in Spain with Dr. Marie Nydam
From archaeological digs in Peru to primate studies in Barbados, student-faculty research at Centre College often spans the globe, and this summer Jessica Peak ’16 (above left) and Kirsten Giesbrecht ’17 (above middle) had the chance to conduct research both on campus and abroad. Both students accompanied Assistant Professor of Biology Marie Nydam (above right) on a trip to Spain earlier this summer to collect samples for their research on ascidians, marine organisms commonly known as sea squirts.
The team collected the invertebrates along the northern and northeastern coasts of the Iberian Peninsula, a region Nydam believes is home to three rare species of ascidians in the genus Botryllus. Last year, she collected sea squirts with another group of Centre students in the English Channel, but was only able to find individuals of one Botryllus species. The Spanish coasts are also a potential hybrid zone for species in the genus Ciona. A hybrid zone is an area in which two species coexist and breed with one another. This was Nydam’s first time collecting in Spain, and DNA analysis will indicate whether or not the coastal areas they sampled form a hybrid zone.
According to Nydam, ascidians are fascinating from a genetics standpoint, and Peak and Giesbrecht have been working on their own projects analyzing different genes in different types of sea squirts. Peak has been examining the DNA of Ciona ascidians in order to better understand how two species in this genus that are extremely different genetically are still able to breed with each other. This research can inform our understanding of how species are created and maintained across all marine invertebrates, not just ascidians.
Meanwhile, Giesbrecht has been studying the gene that allows multiple Botryllus ascidians to fuse together to form single individuals, while still retaining the ability to recognize their own tissue. This process, known as allorecognition, is critical to the survival and reproduction of the many organisms that use it.
Though this research takes place in the lab, Nydam believes the fieldwork they completed in Spain was an essential component of the students’ research experience.
“For me, going to the field is the most inspiring part of research,” she says. “It’s important for students to see the animals in the field to understand where they are and how they’re living, and to see for themselves the context of why we’re doing this.”
Peak agrees that she has felt more invested in the research as a result of directly participating in the fieldwork.
“We were involved in the collection process from start to finish and so our lab work is a lot more meaningful,” she explains. “We navigated through these little towns in Spain and found the ports and then pulled up ropes or looked under the buoys to see if there was anything there to collect.”
Giesbrecht adds, “Overall it was a really enjoyable experience. I liked seeing how you use what you find in the field to get data.”
In addition to gaining experience in the field, Nydam hopes Peak and Giesbrecht begin to trust their own abilities when it comes to lab work.
“My goal for them is to feel comfortable in the lab, because molecular biology has a huge learning curve,” she explains. “I want my students to feel competent in whatever they are doing.
“I also want them to understand how what they are doing day-to-day relates to the bigger intellectual picture,” Nydam continues. “Anyone can learn to do the lab techniques, but what keeps scientists motivated are the big questions we are going to potentially answer.”
by Caitlan Cole