Feature Friday: Adriana Messyasz

Hi, Adriana Messyasz! Welcome to ReefBites.

Twitter: @AMessyasz

Adriana is a Ph.D. candidate in the Environmental Sciences Graduate Program at Oregon State University. Her research focuses on host-associated viruses through metagenomics and an ecosystem perspective. Read more about her research below! 

Give an elevator pitch of what your projects are about.

Coral reefs are an integral component of ocean biodiversity. I study the coral holobiont, or microorganisms living in symbiosis, or close physical association, with the coral animal. These include the photo-symbiotic algae, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. My projects combine my experience with studying environmental viruses with an ecosystem approach that I have gained through the interdisciplinary nature of my PhD work. This means that I work to characterize and discover viruses within coral to then better understand how these viruses play a role in coral health, and in coral-algal and coral-bacterial interactions. I also investigate the microbial components of other reef inhabitants, like turf algae and damselfish. This broadens our understanding of how microbes contribute to the larger reef ecosystem through functions like nutrient cycling, pathogenesis, and antimicrobial defense. The more we understand about coral reefs, the better equipped we are to slow their decline. I am passionate about using microorganisms to understand environmental functions, particularly in environments as vital as coral reefs.  

Why is this project important and timely?

Viruses can infect every living organism, and some even infect other viruses. While disease-causing viruses and marine aquatic viruses are well studied, viruses from environments like coral reefs are understudied. This is mainly because corals and their symbionts are difficult to culture and standard genomic and bioinformatic techniques are more challenging for host-associated viruses compared to free-living viruses in the water-column. Our lab is dedicated to uncovering techniques that will enable us to discover, characterize, and assemble viral genomes from corals. It is a difficult task, but if it can be done, these methods may aid in unveiling the underexplored world of viruses in other environmental ecosystems. Not all viruses are pathogenic, and in the oceans viruses are crucial for biogeochemical cycling. We also know that viruses like bacteriophages that reside in coral mucus protect the coral animal from bacterial pathogens. But we don’t know as much about the eukaryotic viruses within coral. These viruses may contribute to coral bleaching and disease, but may also be integral for coral health.  While it is uncertain whether viruses may contribute to coral decline or be a key component for coral conservation, we know their existence is important and uncovering exactly how and why could vastly expand what we know about coral and other marine microbiomes. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your work?

With the rapid development of genomic and bioinformatic techniques, there are more possibilities to discover viruses that impact environmental functions. I hope that my work contributes to the uncovering of novel viruses and a better understanding of how viruses interact with ecosystem health. Finding better ways to discover coral reef viruses can influence more environmental virology research in understudied systems. With my work I also hope to inspire younger generations to consider careers in environmental microbiology or virology. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York I never thought I would be scuba-diving on coral reefs to get my PhD. I thought I could only see those kinds of scenes through Nature documentaries on PBS. So, I enjoy reaching out to kids who are just like I was and encourage them to take environmental career paths. To do this, I began an outreach project: Corals Connect: Connecting Cultures Through Coral Reef Education (www.facebook.com/coralsconnect/) that aims to teach young children about the significance of environmental change through the study of coral reefs. This program connects communities, in my hometown of Brooklyn New York, that lack in environmental science education, to the communities that live in the regions I am studying and are directly connected to coral reefs. I would also like to contribute to changes within academia that would allow for any student, from any background, to do marine or environmental research. 

How did you come to work in this field?

During my first year in undergrad I got to do a virology-focused lab project which sparked my passion for microbiological lab work and was my first introduction to bioinformatics. Then in my final year of undergrad I was able to lead my own research and I wanted to couple lab work with field work. My project looked at Ranavirus distribution in New Jersey wood frogs. With this project, I got to see the effects of a viral disease in real time, and while seeing multiple ponds of dead wood frog tadpoles was devastating, it piqued my interest in environmental virology. For graduate school, I looked for labs specializing in this discipline. I was lucky enough that Rebecca (Becky) Vega Thurber was accepting grad students, particularly for a project on coral reef viruses. My interest and experience with environmental virology fit very well with this project and Becky’s personality and work-ethic were inspiring to me. Since joining the Vega Thurber lab, I learned that most viruses do not cause devastating disease, but we also have so much more to learn about how viruses impact the environment. 

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

Take care of and prioritize your mental health. For me, one of the most stressful times of my PhD was preparing for and taking my qualifying exam. I saw a recommendation to start up a new hobby during this time to help alleviate the stress. Initially I thought I wouldn’t have time to do so, but I took the advice and signed up for a dance class at my university. I became a PhD candidate in April 2019, and since then I am still taking dance classes (even through Zoom during a pandemic). It is such a nice release from my daily work routine and it keeps my body moving and my mind happy. So, in general I would say to take out the extra time to prioritize any activity that allows you to relieve stress and take your mind off grad school work. 

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

As a coral reef researcher, I think it is really important to know the history and culture of the places I study. I think all researchers, particularly those in natural sciences, should be aware of the cultural and historical aspects of the countries and ecosystems they study. All of my work has been on the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia. I only began to understand the history and impact of colonization on the island when I worked in an interdisciplinary team as part of my minor in Risk and Uncertainty Quantification in Marine Sciences. One of the students in our team, Riskao Sakai, majors in Applied Anthropology, and she is well versed on the impacts of colonization and western science practices on local Mo’oreans. She introduced me to the term “research fatigue” which many of the locals experience due to the vast amount of coral research being done on the island. With my outreach program, I also learned more about how Mo’orean culture is tied with its reefs. For example, I learned that Mo’oreans refer to coral reefs as the “cupboards of the sea” because they provide food and sustenance to both ocean and land inhabitants.

I think it is really easy to get caught up in field experiments or sample collection, but now I understand that taking a step back and asking how your research can consider, listen to, and respect local needs is important. Now, before I start any new project I will ask myself some questions, including: Do I need to collect new samples, or is there data already sampled that I can use to answer my research question? Or, can I shape my research question so that I can utilize already existing samples/data? Do I understand the history and traditions of the local cultures? How do my privileges and background (for me, being a white, western-educated scientist) impact the way I conduct research? How can I respectfully listen to, learn, and utilize local knowledge when conducting research? Is there an opportunity to have locals, scientists or not, help me with my research? How do I correctly and respectfully acknowledge locals when I publish or disseminate my research? I think these are some of the questions every field scientist should ask themselves before doing fieldwork or working with field samples. 

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