Since its founding, Mystic Aquarium has had an abiding commitment to scientific research as a core competency of the organization.
Today, Mystic Aquarium has a renowned staff of research scientists, led by Vice President for Research and Chief Scientist, Dr. Tracy Romano. We operate research laboratories on the Mystic Aquarium campus and at the University of Connecticut Avery Point campus.
Additionally, we are very proud to collaborate with several Scientists-in-Residence who work closely with Mystic Aquarium. Each of these Scientists bring research specialties and topics to Mystic Aquarium that broaden our research agenda and deepen our engagement with key ocean related issues. I would like to introduce you this talented Mystic Aquarium team:
David Gruber, PhD
Associate Professor of Biology, Baruch College, City University of New York Fellow, John B. Pierce Laboratory
David Gruber completed a PhD in biological oceanography from the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences in 2007. His research pertains to marine microbial ecology and fluorescent proteins on coral reefs. From 2007 to 2008, Gruber was a postdoctoral fellow at the Brown University Division of Biology and Medicine, where he worked to develop fluorescent proteins into modulatable probes with neurobiological and medical applications. Gruber is a member of the City University of New York Macaulay Honors College, a visiting scientist at Brown University and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and the Central Caribbean Marine Institute. In addition, Gruber is committed to communicating science to the general public. He serves as a scientific advisor and producer for the WNYC Studio 360’s “Science and Creativity” series and his writings have appeared in The New Yorker, Nature Medicine and The Best American Science Writing 2007. A former tropical forester for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, his research now utilizes remote operated vehicles (ROVs) and extended-range scuba to examine marine natural products, fluorescent proteins and bioluminescence on coral reefs. He is the co-author of Aglow in the Dark: The Revolutionary Science of Biofluorescence (Harvard University Press, 2006) and is currently co-producing a 3D IMAX film on bioluminescence. He holds master’s degrees in coastal environmental management from Duke University and journalism from Columbia University.
In collaboration with fellow Scientist-in-Residence Vincent Pieribone, Gruber has utilized animals in the Mystic Aquarium collection for imaging fluorescence; these images have been published in various media outlets. He also partners with Pieribone on ROVs to capture images at depth and was heavily involved in an exhibit that premiered at the Natural History Museum in New York and focused on fluorescence and bioluminescence in both terrestrial and aquatic animals.
Jason Mancini, PhD
Senior Researcher, Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center
Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, University of Connecticut
Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Connecticut College
Jason Mancini holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Connecticut and has expertise in the archaeology and ethnohistory of New England. His current research projects focus on Indian histories after 1700 and involve Indian social networks, Indian mariners, urban Indian communities, race and ethnicity in New England, cultural landscapes and oral histories. Mancini is also currently overseeing the restructuring and strategic direction of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. He is focused on building individual, tribal, organizational, corporate and academic relationships, creating a Board of Directors and diversifying revenue streams.
Mancini has been instrumental in carrying out the Mystic Aquarium Point Lay and Mashantucket Educational and Cultural Exchange program. For the past three years, he has coordinated the involvement of the Mashantucket tribe with this program. He has taken three trips to Point Lay, Alaska, as a chaperone for the Mashantucket students and has lent his expertise in anthropology to all aspects of the program.
Research Associate, National Geographic
Greg Marshall is an inventor, marine biologist, conservationist, and Emmy Award- winning filmmaker who has dedicated his life to studying, exploring and documenting animal life in the ocean and across the globe. Marshall’s most celebrated contribution to the research community is the invention of the National Geographic Crittercam, a small, lightweight camera that has the remarkable ability to travel unobtrusively with its animal hosts to capture never-before-seen footage of the hidden lives of wild animals.
Marshall has partnered with Mystic Aquarium in research, education and outreach. He participated in a “proof of concept” study on using Crittercam with the Aquarium’s beluga whales and then traveled to Point Lay, Alaska, to launch Crittercam on wild belugas. He has also partnered with the Aquarium on a research project that utilizes Crittercam to study the behavior of snapping turtles, complementing health assessments of turtles in different environments. Marshall helped to launch the research and education program focused on the snapping turtle initiative by travelling to the Aquarium to address students and community members. In addition, Marshall participated in the launch of the National Geographic Crittercam exhibit at the Aquarium and was a featured speaker in the Aquarium’s Conservation in Action series.
Vincent Pieribone, PhD
Professor of Cellular and Molecular Physiology and Neurobiology Fellow, John B. Pierce Laboratory
Vincent Pieribone attended New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences, where he received a baccalaureate degree in Biology and Chemistry in 1986. He then attended New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and received his PhD in 1992 in Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology. From 1990 to 1992, Pieribone was a National Science Foundation and Fogarty Internal Fellow at the Nobel Institute of Neurophysiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Pieribone did postdoctoral work at the Rockefeller University in New York from 1992 to 1995 and became an Assistant Professor there in 1995. Pieribone joined the Pierce Laboratory in December 1997.
One of Pieribone’s current research areas involves developing genetically encoded fluorescent probes of membrane electrical potential. These probes allow for the use of optical instruments (e.g., microscopes) to monitor the electrical activity of neurons. Such an approach is less invasive than alternative techniques and allows for the study of identified cell types over large regions of the cortical surface.
Pieribone’s laboratory has also engineered miniature imaging systems that can be head-mounted on mammals in order to allow for mobile recording of neuronal activity. These types of studies will improve scientists’ understanding of the neuronal networks that encode information in the central nervous system.
Pieribone helped to create and design the fluorescent coral exhibit in the William E. Kelley gallery and has photographed Aquarium animals for education and outreach purposes in collaboration with fellow Scientist-in-Residence David Gruber.
Gregory Skomal, PhD
Senior Fisheries Biologist, Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Marine Biology Program
Adjunct Faculty, University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology
Guest Investigator, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Adjunct Scientist, Center for Shark Research
Gregory Skomal is an accomplished marine biologist, underwater explorer, photographer, aquarist and author. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and a PhD from Boston University. Skomal has been a senior fisheries biologist with Massachusetts Marine Fisheries since 1987 and currently heads up the Massachusetts Shark Research Program. Through the MSRP, he has been actively involved in the study of life history, ecology and physiology of sharks. His shark research has spanned multiple fish habitats around the globe, from the frigid waters of the Arctic Circle to coral reefs in the tropical Central Pacific. Much of Skomal’s current research centers on the use of acoustic telemetry, satellite-based technology and animal-borne imaging to assess the physiological impacts of capture stress on the post-release survivorship and behavior of sharks.
Skomal has written dozens of scientific research papers and has appeared in a number of film and television documentaries, including programs for National Geographic, Discovery Channel, ESPN and various television networks. He has been an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer since 1978. Although Skomal’s research passion for the last 25 years has focused on sharks, he has been a dedicated aquarist for over 30 years and has written 11 books on aquarium keeping. His most recent book, The Shark Handbook, is a must buy for all shark enthusiasts. Skomal’s home and laboratory are on the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
Amy Apprill, PhD
Associate Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Amy Apprill is a marine microbial ecologist leading the “Microbial Ecology for Ocean Conservation” research program at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). She received a BA in Marine Sciences from the University of San Diego in 2001, and MS and PhD degrees in Biological Oceanography from the University of Hawaii in 2004 and 2009. Apprill is currently an associate scientist in the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department at WHOI.
Apprill’s research seeks to understand the ecology of microbiomes residing in sensitive animal hosts and ecosystems of the ocean. She is interested in the factors driving microbial growth, interactions and succession within these environments and the microbes’ functions and contributions to the health of their host or ecosystem. Apprill devotes much of her time to studying reef-building corals and the microorganisms residing in reef seawater. Much of the world’s reefs are threatened, and Apprill’s research is centered on defining the microbial characteristics of healthy, worldwide corals and reef waters. Apprill has also pioneered the exploration of microorganisms associated with marine mammals, studying worldwide species and populations, and she seeks to determine if their microbial associates can serve as signatures for health or environmental changes.
Apprill’s research utilizes a variety of research tools to understand the diversity and composition, genetic make-up and spatial organization of animal-associated microbes. In an age of inexpensive DNA-sequencing based microbiology, Apprill presents a holistic-type approach that examines the animal-microbial association using a variety of methods. Her work has been featured in a number of widely read journals and has attracted attention and awards at international meetings. Apprill was also recently featured in Science magazine’s “XX Files: Extraordinary Science, Extraordinary Women” video series.
Norman Wainwright, PhD
Senior Director of Research and Development, Charles River Laboratories
Norman Wainwright has been working on the primitive innate immune system found in the American horseshoe crab for almost 30 years. He holds a BA and PhD in Zoology from the University of Vermont. Most recently, he has directed research and new product development at Charles River Laboratories. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, Charles River Laboratories is a major manufacturer of the limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) test, which is derived from the blood cells of the horseshoe crab. LAL is an ultra-sensitive enzyme cascade that is adapted from the immune response of the crab to bacterial infection. Miniaturization of the LAL test and the development of a hand-held instrument to read it have resulted in a major decrease in the amount of horseshoe crab blood needed to detect bacterial endotoxins. The portable test has become a standard in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, where it helps assure the safety of injectable drugs. It has also been flown to the International Space Station as a test of new technology to rapidly assess the microbial cleanliness of spacecraft.
Prior to his work at Charles River Laboratories, Wainwright was a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where the LAL test was discovered. Wainwright’s recent research involves the conservation of horseshoe crabs around the world as well as the molecular biology of marine invertebrates. Wainwright also continues his work with NASA on the development of new life detection and planetary protection procedures using rapid, point-of-use technology.
Last week I mentioned Dr. Norm Wainwright presented at the Board of Trustees dinner. Dr. Wainwright’s work is an excellent example of how Scientists-in-Residence bring together the mission focus of Mystic Aquarium through conservation, education and research. Here is a summary of his talk:
The Horseshoe Crab has thrived relatively unchanged in the oceans of Earth for over 400 million years, playing a large role in coastal ecology. In the Spring of each year, they breed in large numbers on the beaches and in estuaries, laying huge quantities of fertilized eggs that not only perpetuate the species, but serve as essential nutrition for other aquatic species and migratory birds.
In recent decades, their populations have become threatened by over harvesting and loss of habitat in areas of intense human activity. Efforts are underway to stabilize world populations through conservation.
Charles River Laboratories is partnering with Mystic Aquarium in a number of Conservation and public outreach activities. These include sponsorship and participation in the Mystic Aquarium Family Horseshoe Crab Count Walk at Napatree Point Conservation area in Westerly RI, Citizen Scientist blogs in CRL’s Eureka Blog, Researcher for a Day Program and Mystic Aquarium Marine Career Fair in the Fall.
One of the reasons the Horseshoe Crab has survived all these millions of years, is their effective immune system that protects them from bacterial infections. The discovery that their blood could be used to help assure injectable human pharmaceuticals are safe from bacterial contamination has resulted in not only the development of a life saving product for humans, but it gives further rationale that the species should be protected. After collection of a portion of their blood, the crabs are returned to the sea, unharmed.
We continue to perform research with the horseshoe crab, using that same natural immune reaction to quantify early signs of infection in humans and other animals. CRL and Mystic Aquarium researchers have taken samples from marine mammals to see if this technology could be applied here as well.
One day it could even be useful to study the potential presence of microbial life in the Solar System beyond Earth. Collaboration with NASA has resulted in using the Horseshoe Crab product to measure microbial contamination on spacecraft surfaces, or in samples returned to Earth from Mars and other planets.
Robust partnerships such as this – in research, conservation and education with experiential learning locally and globally – are just a few of many unique competencies and capabilities of Mystic Aquarium.
See you all soon!
Adam Cilley | April 3rd, 2018