(with publications list)
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Outreach and Education
My main research aim is to document the biodiversity of cnidarians and sponges.
I am particularly interested
in understanding how this biodiversity has come to be.
Although comparatively simple, cnidarians are extremely diverse. They live in wide variety of
habitats -- from hydrothermal vents, to the open ocean, to freshwater lakes --
and they exhibit enormous variation in their life cycles (e.g., with and without larvae,
sessile polyps and/or pelagic medusae).
Systematics and Population Structure of Deep-Sea Glass Sponges (Hexactinellida)
Through an NSF-funded Assembling the Tree of Life project on Cnidaria,
I am engaged in a number of concurrent studies dealing with
the origins of various cnidarian groups. One study focuses on Stauromedusae, a poorly known group
of sessile species with a temperate and polar distribution. My phylogenetic analyses have revealed that this group is of
key evolutionary importance. Some of my studies seek to incorporate fossil data with
molecular phylogenetics. While limited, fossils provide an actual, physical record of life through time.
Another study aims to understand the relationships among Trachylina, a large group of hydrozoan cnidarians that
includes many holopelagic species, as well as the freshwater jellyfish. I am curious how (and how many times)
cnidarians have invaded freshwater habitats. Freshwater species are of interest because they are thought to
be subject to repeated anthropogenic introductions and have potent impacts on local ecosystems.
Recently, Mike Dawson, Keith Bayha, and I have won support from NSF to work on
revising the taxonomy and systematics of Semaeostomeae, a group of scyphozoan jellyfishes.
Hexactinellid sponges (some 500 known species) have yet to be the subjects of published phylogenetic analyses
based on molecules. This lack of research effort to some extent reflects a deficiency of either interest or expertise
(there are less than five or so workers world-wide who currently publish systematic work on hexactinellids), but the
greater problem is the difficulty in obtaining appropriate material. Hexactinellids are largely a deep-water group and
only a few taxa are accessible at diving depths. My collaborators and I have been accumulating a sizable collection of
recently collected hexactinellid material for the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Working closely with Russian,
German, and other investigators, my aim is to conduct a thorough systematic analysis of the entire group.
Other Interests (Metazoan Phylogeny, Placozoa, etc.)
Deep-sea sponges and cnidarians (stony and soft corals) appear to play important ecological roles by providing
complex habitat for other organisms. And yet, while the population biology of marine species has been of great interest for
quite some time, very limited efforts have been put into understanding the processes responsible for population structure of
species within the deep sea. These animals tend to grow very slowly and have limited dispersal ability suggesting that the
impact of losing these animals due to anthropogenic causes could be profound.
The federal government, largely through programs within NOAA, has expressed a growing interest in supporting research on
deep-sea animals, particularly those that potentially provide habitat that is critical for fish. I aim to
clarify the processes responsible for the geographic structuring of deep-sea glass sponges.
Animal diversity is mind bogglingly large. To understand the origins of the diversity of
animal body plans, development, genomes, and the rise in animal complexity, one must have well-supported
hypotheses for the phylogenetic relationships among animal phyla. Great strides are being made in this area,
but additional work is still needed. A stable phylogenetic hypothesis of Metazoa is not sufficient to
address such macroevolutionary questions. Integration and synthesis of independent lines of evidence -- from the
record of body and trace fossils, to comparative morphology, development, genomics, and ecology – in the
context of robust hypotheses of relationship are necessary for understanding key events in animal history.
Outreach and Education
A little known phylum, Placozoa, contains the simplest of all known animals. Just a single species with a pan-tropical
distribution is described, but some colleagues and I have recently published a study documenting that multiple species exist.
Despite this and other breakthroughs (that these animals have sex has recently been confirmed!), extremely little is
known about the taxonomic, ecological, and morphological diversity of placozoans. They have never been observed in their
natural habitat, and even their natural source of nutrition is unknown. Anything learned about the development, ecology,
life history, or behavior of placozoans is likely to be of significant evolutionary interest because of their early divergence
Finally, I am deeply interested in the methods -- particularly phylogenetic theory and taxonomic practise -- that systematists
use to conduct their science.
I am very excited about how knowledge of marine
organisms can be used
to excite students and the public about science.
Though it is not the responsibility of every scientist, it is the
obligation of the scientific community to relate the results of scientific inquiry to others. It is
also in one of the Mission Objectives of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and with good reason.
Some of My Collaborators (and favorite people!)
First, being a scientist is too much fun not to give back to the society that supports scientific inquiry.
Moreover, there is a practical payoff. A society that better understands science is more likely to
support science. Opportunities arise for academics to contribute to scientific literacy by writing essays,
articles, review papers, and the like for a variety of different target audiences. I have taken
opportunities to write for a broader audience. I value these contributions
comparably to those sent off to scientific journals and will continue publishing essays that highlight
the research of myself and colleagues, biodiversity and conservation, the nature of science, and
science education on the Internet.
I am also interested in efforts that directly target the education of children. In this arena,
I believe that there is great promise in programs that integrate educators and scientists.
Specifically, projects that support k-12 teachers in writing curriculum based upon the real research appear
to be excellent learning experiences for everyone involved. While scientists learn the demands of
communicating their research in ways that are meaningful for k-12 students, teachers come to better
appreciate the nature of science and academic endeavors. The result is better-educated educators at all levels.
Paulyn Cartwright and
Daphne Fautin, University of Kansas
Meg Daly, Ohio State University
Mike Dawson, UC Merced
Casey Dunn, Brown University
Steven Haddock, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Yakko Hirano, Kominato Marine Laboratory of Chiba University
Thomas Jankowski, Federal Government, Switzerland
Dorte Janussen, Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt, Germany
Dhugal Lindsay, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology
Antonio C. Marques, Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil
Monica Medina, UC Merced
Vicki and John Pearse, Long Marine Laboratory, UC Santa Cruz, USA
Peter Schuchert, Natural History Museum of Geneva, Switzerland
Konstantin Tabachnick, Institute of Oceanology, Moscow, Russia
Bob Thacker, University of Alabama
Gert Wörheide, Geoscience Centre of the University of Göttingen, Germany
I very much enjoy working with students who pursue
independently initiated graduate studies involving the biology of cnidarians, sponges, and/or other invertebrates.
If you have an interest in pursuing graduate studies on such topics,
I would entertain being a graduate advisor or co-advisor for it. Just express interest
and we can begin a dialog about the possibility.
Presently, I am an adjunct faculty member of the
University of Maryland's Graduate Studies Program in
Behavior, Evolution, Ecology and Systematics (BEES). The BEES program
has an excellent faculty and is rich in facilities and other resources. George Washington University is also located nearby, and I would
entertain co-advising students with relevant interests (pending a favorable decision about allowing me adjunct status)
interested in joining the GWU graduate program in biological sciences. Finally,
the Smithsonian Fellowships programs offer a variety of opportunities for researchers
at all levels to visit the Smithsonian and conduct independent research or work with affiliated researchers such as myself.