If you have been following us on Instagram (@LSUscience), you might have noticed some particularly breathtaking close-ups lately of marine animals, including a colorful sea urchin photo by LSU student Najib Mahmud. Search the hashtag #lsuinvertzoology on Twitter and Instagram, and you’ll find dozens of surreal images of marine invertebrates like sea stars and feather duster worms, all taken in a semester of Invertebrate Zoology taught by LSU Ph.D. student Alicia Reigel and LSU associate professor Michael Hellberg.
Alicia is a Ph.D. candidate in Michael Hellberg's lab in the Biological Sciences Department. She excels in both research and teaching. Alicia’s Master’s degree in biology from Georgia Southern University was partially funded by a fellowship from the National Science Foundation GK-12 Program, as part of which she taught science courses at local high schools in Georgia.
We caught up with Alicia this weekend to hear more about her fabulous marine biology research experiences and her innovative use of social media and visual science communication in the classroom.
College of Science: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the field of marine biology? Is LSU a good place to study within your field of science?
Alicia Reigel: Despite growing up in central Wisconsin, nowhere near an ocean, I have had a life-long fascination with the marine world. At the age of twelve I talked my parents into gifting me a scuba diving course and that was truly the catalyst for my current career.
In college, I studied abroad on the tiny Caribbean Island of Bonaire where I took courses in coral reef ecology and scientific scuba diving. I think my time in Bonaire was when I realized that this was a career path that I could really be excited about. In 2012, I began a Master’s degree at Georgia Southern University working on the population genetics of an invasive species of barnacle under faculty members Daniel Gleason and Scott Harrison. Now I’m here at LSU to complete my Ph.D. in Dr. Michael Hellberg’s lab.
LSU is a great place to work on marine systems because we are so close to the Gulf of Mexico and have connections with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in Cocodrie, LA. LUMCON does a lot of research and diving in the Gulf. Also, the biology department at LSU is very diverse. Meeting colleagues from different fields has already opened my eyes to potential research collaborations and projects I had not considered before becoming a student here at LSU.
College of Science: Can you tell us a bit about your research at LSU (in words a non-scientist could understand)? What kind of questions are you exploring? What drew you to these research questions/topics?
Alicia Reigel: My dissertation research is focused on combining my interests in diverse topics. I truly consider myself a coral reef ecologist and thus my main interest is to understand and protect coral reefs. As such, I have long-standing questions about how the activities of humans, particularly in areas in close proximity to coral reef ecosystems such as those in the Caribbean, are impacting coral health and survival.
In my first semester at LSU I took a course taught by Dr. Cameron Thrash that focused on techniques for analyzing data from microbial research projects. I began to wonder about the microbes that live in corals. Are these microbes that live in coral tissue helpful to the coral, providing such benefits as antibiotic qualities or helping to digest their food? Or are they harmful or pathogenic? Or do they have little impact at all?
With these questions in mind, my first project is to examine the microbial communities that reside in the tissue of corals that live on reefs that are heavily impacted by human activities such as boat traffic, coastal construction, or even runoff of chemicals such as fertilizer. I then want to compare those microbial communities to the microbial communities found on corals that are living in areas less impacted by humans.
College of Science: What does a typical day look like for you?
Alicia Reigel: I would love to tell you that my typical day involves scuba diving in exotic locales, but that’s far from the truth. In reality I spend a lot of time behind a computer reading papers and preparing grants or grading work for my students. If I’m not at the computer I’m definitely behind the lab bench processing samples that I collected this past summer/fall. Necessary, but often very tedious work.
College of Science: You get to go scuba-diving for your research in wonderfully exotic parts of the world! Can you tell us more about that? What are those experiences like? Where all have you gone underwater for science?
Alicia Reigel: All of my research diving experiences have been in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Georgia and in the Caribbean. This past summer and fall I was blessed to be able to go on two coral tissue collection trips in the Caribbean. I should preface all of this by saying that I spent months beforehand contacting local researchers to ask questions about diving locations, accommodations and lab space. Additionally, I went through about a million hoops to get permits to collect corals on the two islands I visited and then also permits to bring these tissues back to the USA. It’s not an easy process, but it was worth it.
I first spent time in Puerto Rico diving in the southwest corner of the island in an area called Las Lajas. This area is fairly remote and not frequented by American tourists so it was great to see the true culture of the island. While I was there I spent all day diving and processing samples. I usually began the day at 7am setting up supplies, followed by 3 one-hour dives to collect samples, and then 5-6 hours processing samples, with the night ending around 10pm. I did get to sneak out and see a few local sites, but most of my time was spent in the water or in the lab.
The second stop was the island of Bonaire where I repeated the same process. However, in Bonaire I got a bit more time to meet up with old friends and research colleagues, and to enjoy some beach time. Scuba diving is my passion, but when you dive for research you don’t get to focus on the fun because you are working. However, in my opinion, it’s the most beautiful office in the world!
College of Science: Tell us your favorite story from the field - perhaps the most memorable field research experience you've had!
Alicia Reigel: I think the most memorable story I have from the field is the day that two bull sharks were a little too curious. Bull sharks are notoriously nosy and can often be aggressive so even some marine biologists are slightly wary of them. I was doing research and carrying around a lot of equipment on a dive and I was not focused on the surrounding water. While I had my head in the reef counting corals my dive partner tapped my shoulder. I turned to look and saw two large bull sharks “pacing” behind us.
I had a momentary panic, but remembered to relax and just keep working. Most often sharks are just curious and will move on. I kept telling myself that until I was bumped by one of the sharks. Bumping usually indicates either curiosity or a test to see how delicious you might be.... not a great sign.
We began to make our way shallower to get out of the water, but these two were very persistent and would not stop following and bumping us. As we made it to the shallows the two sharks suddenly lost interest and just swam away. I can’t deny the sigh of relief I had watching them swim away. I’ve spent a lot of time in the water with sharks, but that story definitely stands out. I think those two bull sharks were just overly curious.
College of Science: The Hellberg Lab Twitter account recently commented about how research isn't all "scuba-diving and fun.” What do you do when you aren't in the field? What does "lab life" look like for you?
Alicia Reigel: I wish all research was scuba diving and fun-in-the-sun, but that’s not the case. As I previously mentioned much of my research time is spent doing lab work. As part of my processing of samples I have to painstakingly scrape the coral tissue off of the coral skeleton and that has taken a lot of time. In addition, because I am working with bacteria, contamination is a real concern and much of my work has to be done in the bio-hood [also a biosafety cabinet, or an enclosed, ventilated laboratory workspace for safely working with materials contaminated with or potentially contaminated with pathogens] in Dr. Thrash’s lab to make sure there is as little contamination as possible.
After scraping the tissue off the skeleton, I can complete DNA extractions [extracting genetic material of potential bacteria within the coral tissue]. I’m currently in the process of finishing extractions and then my samples will be sent to a facility to sequence the microbial DNA. After I receive the sequencing data back I will spend most days on the computer analyzing and organizing that data, which is a very long process.
A few weeks in the field can mean months or even a year of lab work and data analysis.
Update: Watch this video about Alicia's research looking at microbes in coral tissues!
College of Science: Tell us a bit about your teaching experiences. You taught Invertebrate Zoology last semester and Instagram is full of amazing microscope images your #lsuinvertzoology students took of living creatures in the lab. What inspired you to have students share science visually from the lab?
Alicia Reigel: My students were actually the inspiration for #lsuinvertzoology. I noticed them utilizing their cell phones to take images of live creatures through the ocular pieces of their microscopes. As I walked around I saw that some of the images were truly amazing and it gave me an idea to have them post their images and the information they were learning about the creatures on Twitter and Instagram. Most of the students really got into it and had fun taking videos of the creatures moving and posting interesting facts. I think they enjoyed it (well I hope they did) and I think some of them really liked teaching others via social media about the marine life they were looking at in the lab.
One of the students who took Invertebrate Zoology with Alicia last semester, Najib Mahmud, now a Biological Sciences senior at LSU, says he started taking photographs in the lab to supplement observations and drawings for his lab notebook.
"I started using my phone at the eyepiece of our microscopes to take pictures in order to get more detailed images I could zoom into and study instead of having to squint into the microscope the whole time. Slowly I started treating it like my personal photography work and tried to work in proper composition and framing, subject matter, and some light post-processing into the photos to make them more attractive than just an image of an organism sitting in a bowl of water. My passion for science photography started with plain curiosity, - photos were a way to see things not easily seen by eye." - Najib Mahmud
College of Science: Why is science communication important to you?
Alicia Reigel: I think that often science has a bad reputation as being a “hard subject” or “boring,” but that’s far from true. I think if you can find new and exciting ways to share facts and research ideas to the greater public, we all benefit. While I live in a world of scientists, most people are not in this field, but it’s important that they know that science benefits all of us. From learning about how human activities affect coral reefs to understanding the benefits of vaccines, we are ALL impacted by progress in science. It is difficult to ask non-scientists, such as legislators, to fund our work if they don’t understand the impacts that it has on the human population as a whole. Fun avenues such as the twitter hashtag we used in class make it exciting to learn and share about science, and social media lets us share our information with people we would never meet otherwise. It’s truly an exciting time for science and I’m happy to be a part of it!
College of Science What is your favorite species/animal and why?
Alicia Reigel: My true love is for corals. There is so much we don’t yet know about their ability to withstand environmental changes and the symbioses they share with microbes and other animals on the reefs. That lack of knowledge is what makes them so intriguing. Also, they create some of the most naturally beautiful views we have on the planet, coral reefs.
Interested in studying or getting involved with marine biology research at LSU? Click here for more information.
Interested in using mobile photography, Instagram or other social media platforms for science communication? Visit the Communication across the Curriculum (CxC) Science Studio (@lsucxcscience on Instagram) in Coates Hall 151 (LSU campus) for resources and training opportunities. Contact LSU science communication specialist Paige Jarreau (email@example.com) for more information. The CxC Science Studio and the College of Science have partnered with SciFund to teach an online course on using Instagram for science communication, and the studio has mobile photography/videography equipment that LSU students and faculty can "rent" for free!