Feature Friday: Brad Weiler

Hi, Brad Weiler! Great to have you on ReefBites. 

@BradWeilerDives

https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/expedition/coralculprits/

Brad is a Marine Biology and Ecology PhD student at the University of Miami, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. He studies coral (host)-microbe interactions and disease pathogen identification in Dr. Javier del Campo’s lab. Read more about Brad’s research below! 

Give an elevator pitch of what your research/project is about.

Corals, like humans and other animals have an immune system, a collection of microbes that interact in a positive, neutral, or negative way with the coral host. If an alien microbe is introduced or the microbial community (microbiome) dynamics shift from environmental stress, coral health can become compromised. Due to the molecular nature of this research and the complexity of the coral microbiome, there is significant difficulty in confidently identifying disease pathogens- leaving this over 40-year-old field still missing crucial information. Here, we aim to use modern molecular techniques along with conventional culturing techniques to target pathogens responsible for various coral diseases (such as the relatively recent coral disease, scleractinian coral tissue loss disease that is decimating the Florida Reef Tract and surrounding regions). By isolating pathogens and understanding their genetic and ecological information, this research can help management make informed decisions on coral reef mitigation and future conservation.

Why is this research/project important and timely?

The Florida Reef Tract (FRT) and coral reef ecosystems around the world have experienced unprecedented declines in coral coverage just in the last couple decades. These drastic declines are caused by a number of drivers, with climate change acting as the primary driver. Unfortunately, the impacts are so detrimental the coral reefs are not able to combat the stress levels and their compromised health can drive the onset of disease. Scleractinian coral tissue loss disease has been suggested to have begun as an epizootic in 2014 in Miami, FL. Five years later, this epizootic has spread to various Caribbean islands and reported as far as St. Martin. There is currently no identified pathogen associated with this disease and the severity of this disease event suggests immediate action is required. This research project helps in the joint effort to mitigate this epizootic event (as well as future outbreaks) so as to reduce the severity and regional impact.

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

If pathogens can be successfully isolated with confidence, current and future diseases can be identified within a timely manner to help reduce the overall impact a disease event can have on coral reef ecosystems. 

How did you come to work in this field/project?

I began studying coral reef community ecology during my undergrad thesis fieldwork in The Bahamas at The Cape Eleuthera Institute in my third year. It was not until we were in the field that I began to notice coral diseases plaguing the reefs and asked what could be driving coral disease spread. I returned to The Bahamas the following year after securing multiple sources of funding with a colleague to see if we could actually find trends in disease occurrence from a community ecology perspective. Six months later I was hired on at the same research station as a Research Technician to both teach high school students and undertake my own research project on local coral reef health. The work done in The Bahamas had me asking questions about other types of corals and if they get diseased. I went to Newfoundland, Canada to study deep cold-water coral microbiomes and learn the molecular techniques required to research microbiomes. I found the ideal Ph.D. advisor at the University of Miami RSMAS looking at marine microbes (Dr. Javier del Campo), leading me to explore coral disease etiology and microbiome composition. 

What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?

  1. Stay on top of writing- always. Don’t leave writing until you’re “supposed to be writing your thesis”. Example: No one knows your methods better than you while you’re conducting your experiments/doing lab work. Start writing immediately and keep solid notes. 
  2. Apply for funding early, even if your advisor has funding for you – Not only does it look good on your CV, but it gives you an opportunity to do things you want to do outside of your project. 
  3. Don’t stop doing the things that make you feel your best. Once you stop, it is so hard to find the time to reincorporate those activities back into your schedule. 

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