Training in Tropical Taxonomy

2011 Courses

Pan American Advanced Studies Institute: Advanced Tunicate Biology: Integrating Modern and Traditional Techniques for the Study of Ascidians

Brianna Tracy
University of San Diego
  I am an MS student at University of San Diego located in San Diego, California. My main research focus will be examining spatial and temporal patterns of settlement of indigenous and non-indigenous ascidian species within Mission Bay, San Diego, California. In addition to quantifying ascidian settlement, we plan to track growth, survival and the timing of reproduction to see how such parameters vary between native and non-native species.

Candice Bromley
Rhodes University
(South, Africa)
  I am a PhD student at Rhodes University in South Africa however, I am originally from Zimbabwe. My research focuses on the isolation and structural elucidation of bioactive secondary metabolites from South African ascidians. The coastline of southern Africa is vast, stretching from southern Namibia in the west to southern Mozambique in the east, and can be divided into three general bio-geographical zones: the cool temperate west coast, the warm temperate south east coast and the sub-tropical east coast. Each of these zones sustains a unique diversity of endemic marine fauna and flora that can offer rich rewards for marine natural products chemists in search of novel bioactive secondary metabolites with possible medicinal properties, however, the secondary metabolites produced by South African ascidian species are presently not well studied.

Cristian Lagger
Departament of
Marine Ecologist
Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina
  I am currently in second year of my PhD at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba (UNC), Argentina, working in taxonomy and biogeography of ascidians fauna. The general objective of my thesis is to study the ascidians of southern South America and Antarctica Peninsula from a multidisciplinary approach, using morphological, ecological and genetic analysis as tools for understanding the diversity and biology of benthic tunicates. I am also interested in biological invasions. In particular I am focused on the Argentina´s ports, where there are some invasive ascidians that are altering native communities.

Luis Felipe Skinner
Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro
  I am Marine Biologist with M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Marine Ecology and large experience in Zoology of Marine Invertebrates. Currently, I am professor at Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) from Brazil, where I teach invertebrate Zoology for undergraduate students. My studies in marine ecology include reproductive biology and settlement of many marine invertebrates and also, benthic ecology. My experience with ascidians began in 1991, at Guanabara Bay, focusing on the effects of predation on the occurrence of Ciona intestinalis. Now, I am working again on the effects of competition by Didemnidae and predation by fishes over ascidians richness, to better understand the colonization and growth of this group. Also, I use ascidians as a model to understand the invasive potential of marine invertebrates and its prevention. I see in this course the opportunity to obtaining the appropriate training and information for biological and taxonomic studies of Ascidiacea. It will be a very good opportunity to learn and talk about identification, taxonomy, biodiversity, biogeography, biological invasions, global change, adaptation and evolution of sea squirts. This will consolidate a new research theme in my lab about ascidian ecology and taxonomy, and further students could be stimulated to learn about this group.

Marcy Balunas
University of Connecticut
  I am an Assistant Professor in the Division of Medicinal Chemistry in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Connecticut (UConn) and a Research Associate with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). My research program at UConn focuses on selectivity and specificity of drug action, using marine natural products chemistry to address critical questions within the broader field of chemical biology. My laboratory studies the chemistry and biological activity of marine microorganisms, studying the microbiology and natural products chemistry of tunicate-associated bacteria. Tunicates have been studied as whole organisms for natural product drug discovery but they have more recently been shown to harbor significant populations of bacteria, some of which may be producing bioactive molecules. These tunicate-associated bacteria are likely used by the host organism for chemical defense and may thus have interesting biological properties against human pathogens.  We conduct selectivity-based anti-parasitic and anti-cancer drug discovery from these marine microorganisms, including synthetically modifying our natural product isolates.

Max Maliska
University of Washington
  I am a PhD. Candidate in Billie Swalla's Lab in the Biology Department at University of Washington. I am interested in the impact developmental mode plays on speciation in marine invertebrates. I am investigating this in littorinid gastropods and molgulid ascidians using a molecular and phylogenetic approach. My research approach specifically focuses on understanding this mechanism at and within the species level and moving up to larger groups. I am also interested in better understanding coalescent methods for approximations of species trees and gene flow.

Kerrianne Ryan
Dalhousie University in Halifax
  I am a PhD student from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada working with the larval ascidian nervous system of Ciona intestinalis.  My project aims to illucidate the connectome of this model tunicate species, creating a circuit diagram of the entire central nervous system.  I have also been working to create a 3 dimensional model of the central nervous system of Ciona intestinalis and comparing this model with previous reporter and antibody studies to better understand neuronal phenotypes and lineage.  The nature of my research also allows me to examine untrastructural detail of cells and organelles of the ascidian at the level of the electron microscope, raising question and interest in the function of various cellular features and examination of basal cellular characteristics.  I am interested in the development of all varieties of tunicates, specifically their nervous systems, and beleive that their evolutionary position relative to other model species makes them an ideal candidate for examination of important neuronal and developmental characteristics.  I hope to expand my work in future to include other tunicate species and incorporate more evolutionary and ecological aspects with regards to behaviour and development.

Serina Lee Siew Chen
National University of Singapore
  I am a research assistant working under Dr Serena Teo in the Marine Biofouling and Antifouling group. My main focus is using the standard barnacle bioassay against novel and small amides molecules to collect anti-settlement data. As these amides molecules are structurally simple and totally organic, they have the potential to be environmentally friendly hence if incorporated into marine paint, they may perhaps replace toxic biocides that bio-accumulates and remain in the environment for years.We are now looking into setting up multi-species bioassays using tubeworms and ascidians common in local waters to assess for broad spectrum efficacy in our compounds. I am also involved in a collaborative research with Coastal and Marine Environment (CME) Programme Office, National Parks Board "Survey of Marine Fouling Organisms in Singapore waters" working on identification of ascidians collected from navigational buoys and artificial submerged substrates.

Beth Sheets
Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies, San Francisco State University
  I am a Master’s student at San Francisco State University’s Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies in California. I am studying Botrylloides violaceus, a dominant invasive tunicate species on the Pacific Coast of North America currently found from Alaska to Baja California. For my thesis, I plan to use a candidate nuclear gene to investigate population genetics and phylogeographic patterns of B. violaceus along a latitudinal gradient on the Pacific Coast

Christen Santschi
University of California Santa Barbara
  I am a 2nd year graduate student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology at the University of California Santa Barbara. My research focuses on exotic marine species which threaten the ecological and economic health of coastal waters worldwide. I am particularly interested in the ecology and biology of exotic species that make up fouling communities on artificial structures and boat hulls. Boats can transport exotic species from harbor to harbor on their hulls, potentially spreading these species to natural reefs and other coastal marine habitats. Colonial and solitary tunicates are major components of these fouling assemblages. However, the relative importance of physical and biological factors influencing the distribution and abundance of these organisms is still unclear. The overall goal of my master’s thesis and research project is to develop a better understanding of how physical and biological factors promote the spread and establishment of exotic marine species on boats and within harbors.

Livia de Moura Oliveira
Universidade Federal da Paraíba, Brazil


I am a Biological Sciences undergraduate at the Universidade Federal da Paraíba (UFPB – Federal University of Paraiba, Brazil). I study ascidians since 2009 and I also collaborate taking care of the ascidians collection at the Laboratório de Invertebrados Paulo Young (LIPY – Laboratory of Invertebrates Paulo Young). My research is focused on the taxonomy and systematic of ascidians from the Northeast of Brazil, mainly in ascidian fauna of the coast of Paraiba.

Kim Diver
Wesleyan University

  I am a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University and I have a doctorate in geography from Syracuse University. As an island biogeographer, I am interested in spatial patterns of isolated systems and the distribution of organisms among those systems. My study areas include both true islands as well as insular marine ecosystems (e.g. tunicate-bearing reef patches). I also collaborate on a project that investigates the biogeography of marine ecosystems in Panama in relation to the biological activity of marine organisms against tropical diseases and cancer.

Cristina Simkanin
Christina Simkanin
University of Victoria, British Columbia

  My research interests are ascidian taxonomy and biology, benthic ecology, biogeography and anthropogenic impacts on marine ecosystems, such as climate change and species invasions. Currently, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. As part of the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network, my research investigates the factors that affect the establishment of non-native ascidians. Specifically, I am comparing the differential distributions of non-native ascidians in man-made maritime structures (i.e. areas where non-native marine species are often introduced) and natural subtidal habitats. Using the non-native colonial ascidian, Botrylloides violaceus, as a model organism, I have carried out experimental manipulations to test which mechanisms (e.g. release from predators, initial inoculation size, and recruitment success) are important for invasion success and infiltration of natural benthic habitats.

Vanessa Guerra
Vanessa Guerra
Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies of San Francisco State University

  I'm a first year Master's student at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies of San Francisco State University. I'm interested in studying the population dynamics of the invasive tunicate Ciona spp. Ciona spp. are relatively well studied organisms that provide us with great tools to search for markers that would indicate the fitness of a population, the dynamics of a genomic system and to observe evolutionary tendencies in a model invasive species. The use of non-neutral genes, such as genes related to reproductive abilities, could help us achieve these goals and allow us to compare diversity in populations that have been isolated over a relatively short time scale

Jenn Dijkstra


Juan I. Cañete


Zaira Hernandez


Erika Montoya


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