Cynthia KicklighterIGERT researcher goes to the ends of the earth for marine worms
Georgia Institute of TechnologyAtlanta, GA
Cynthia Kicklighter has searched the Atlantic and the Pacific, from North Carolina to the tropics, and from sunny shallow coral ecosystems to cold and dark waters 7000 feet down, all in pursuit of...marine worms and snails. Currently a Georgia State University postdoctoral researcher working within the Department of Biology, Neurobiology and Behavior Group, she is hoping to understand the chemical defenses utilized by the slow moving organism Aplysia californica, a marine snail commonly known as a sea hare. "This is basically the chemical ecology of yuck," she says, explaining the effect of secretions the sea hare releases when it comes in contact with predators such as the California spiny lobster and the Sunburst anemone. What are the molecular signals, she wonders, that would make an anemone or a lobster actually reject the potentially tasty sea hare, and what other organisms use these defenses?
Cynthia is well grounded in marine invertebrate biology, having worked with many of the same species at the University of Miami, while doing undergraduate research with a lab conducting preliminary experiments on the defensive role of Aplysia ink against anemones. She went on from her dual BS degree in Biology and Marine Science to complete a PhD at the Georgia Institute of Technology in August 2003. While at Georgia Tech., she was a part of a National Science Foundation funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program, Signals in the Sea. This $2.7 million grant was awarded by NSF to researchers at Georgia Tech to help address a critical shortage of scientists who study chemical signaling in aquatic ecosystems - an important field of inquiry for understanding basic interactions among organisms, especially as human activity continues to dramatically alter global ecosystems. Professor Mark Hay, the Harry and Linda Teasley Chair of Environmental Biology at Georgia Tech, directs the project in collaboration with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography near Savannah, GA. Producing researchers to study these signaling processes is the goal. Hay says there is a shortage of scientists sufficiently trained in cross-disciplinary fields such as ecology, chemistry, sensory biology, microbiology, physiology, and small-scale hydrodynamics to conduct the numerous investigations needed to make advances in the field.
The Signals in the Sea IGERT will eventually support 40 graduate students and could produce more than 25 doctorates. "IGERT support allows for increased research and travel beyond that allowed by the basic stipend, and also brings together a well-rounded group of researchers, integrating chemical, biological and engineering students in the same program," Cynthia comments. The program's interdisciplinary approach to graduate training includes a unique series of integrated core courses that address the biological, chemical, and physical interactions affecting aquatic signaling. An intensive, hands-on class in aquatic signaling allows student teams from multiple disciplines to collaboratively investigate projects of their own design. In addition, seminars address scientific ethics, special issues faced by under-represented groups and women in science, and the practical aspects of professional development in sciences and engineering. Students also participate in internships at government labs, non-government organizations, biotech companies, and other scientific institutions.
During her own doctoral work on marine worms, Cynthia spent three months on the Atlantic coast of Panama as a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Fellow, examining worms from a variety of marine habitats. A highlight of the her PhD work was a dive on the submersible Alvin, descending to nearly 1.5 miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean off Mexico, collecting intact large tubeworms from deep-sea vents. Along with these specimens, which can be up to a meter long, the dive investigated several other, much smaller, worm species that live nestled among the tubes of their giant relatives.
Continuing with marine organisms in her postdoctoral research, Cynthia used her IGERT training in chemical signaling to expand into researching the chemical defenses of marine snails. The sea hare actually releases two secretions, not just the ink but an opaline substance as well. The two secretions seem to have very different effects on the two predators. Research is trying to answer questions such as how predators perceive these substances, and to measure such things as the electrophysiological reactions of lobster mouthparts when coming in contact with ink and opaline. An additional effect under investigation is how the substances appear to transmit a danger signal to other Aplysia nearby, prompting them to move away, as Cynthia says, "very quickly by snail standards." At this point, her working hypothesis is that various amino acids, along with other as yet unidentified molecules, are responsible for these reactions, although she notes that the experiments are ongoing and new things are frequently being observed.
Growing up in Indiana might not seem like a precursor to a career as a marine scientist, but Cynthia remembers numerous family trips to the Florida coast and to Hawaii, and her taste for salt water seems to have developed early. Not one to limit herself to one facet, however, she has also spent three years as an English teacher in Japan.
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