It started humbly enough. Dr. Michelle Dennis, anatomic pathology, had been fielding consistent student requests for special lectures about coral diseases. Semester after semester, student groups would come to her for more information. While Dennis was interested in learning more about the coral diseases around St. Kitts, she didn’t exactly have the time to leave her office for daily dives. She needed eyes in the field to see what was there, and report back to her with what they found.
Around this same time, Bec Crawford, 2018 DVM candidate, had arrived on the island to begin her journey through veterinary school. With a degree in marine biology and two years (and over 3,000 hours) working as a technician under her belt, Crawford was looking forward to living in a place where she could learn the ropes of veterinary medicine, expand her marine knowledge, and get some hands-on experience with the ocean and its wildlife all at the same time. When she arrived for orientation, she heard Dennis speak about her marine research. And something clicked. “At the end of Dr. Dennis’ lecture, I was so inspired. I knew I was in the right place,” Crawford remembers. So she sent Dennis an email, and before long they had an appointment to meet. As they say, the rest is history. Within a few months, Dennis and Crawford made a plan to start snorkeling and scuba diving together, to conduct a survey of the coral in St. Kitts. They They noted what species were there, and their condition. After the survey was complete, they decided to embark on a health assessment. “Coral covers one percent of the ocean floor, and creates homes for 25 percent of all life in the oceans, so we wanted to ensure that the St. Kitts corals were healthy,” Crawford says. “It turns out they’re not.”
So Dennis created “snorkel squads” of about four students at a time, who would help locate and tag the diseased coral with cattle tags. They’d secure the tag with a zip-tie, log the GPS coordinates, and take pictures of the coral. Then, they’d create laminated maps to help find the coral again. As the research grew, so did student interest. Today, about 20 to 30 students participate each semester, and they’re known as the Coral Crusaders.
Among the seven reefs within snorkeling distance of campus, Crusaders have tagged about 60 or 70 colonies. They visit and photograph the abnormal corals every three weeks to track disease. “This is going to help us understand what diseases the coral are affected with and, of those diseases, which are progressing and which are most seriously damaging the reef,” Dennis explains. The next stage consisted of identifying the most seriously diseased coral, and taking biopsies.
Dennis imagines that one application of this research could be helping St. Kitts to assess the impact of development on the reef. “The coastal development on the horizon is great for tourism and the economy of St. Kitts, but it may impact the reef,” she explains. The group’s current work will be an important baseline to determine changes to the reef after development nearby grows.
Beyond coral assessments, students have the opportunity to bring a special project to the Coral Crusaders. One recent student chose to do a prevalence survey of abnormal and normal corals; for his work, he earned second place at Phi Zeta Student Research Day. Another student decided to follow the biopsy sites, and see how they healed at two and three week intervals. “It’s amazing how fast they’ve healed,” says Dennis. “It makes me want to turn it into a masters project, and learn more about how they heal because there is very little known about that. This is truly an endless opportunity for Ross to investigate.”
But for students like Crawford, the opportunity to be a part of the Coral Crusaders is also a unique professional experience she can’t imagine getting anywhere else. “Ross and St. Kitts gave me my dreams, all in one collective package,” she says. “As a Canadian and young marine biologist, I always dreamed of living in a tropical paradise to be able to get up on a Saturday morning after a long week of hard work, to be greeted by warm sea air on my way down the peninsula, to submerge myself in the underwater world of the Caribbean Sea, and tag coral colonies for research and conservation. When I was four years old, I told my mom I wanted to be a doctor for dolphins and fish. This is more than the child in me could have ever dreamed of.
Diving Into Research
Like the Coral Crusaders, Ross’ research on sea urchins arguably started with student interest. Aakansha Virwani is a part of Ross’ new combined degree program, which allows DVM candidates to also simultaneously earn a MSc by Research degree. She approached associate professor of aquaculture Mark A. Freeman with her idea: dissect and understand the urchin’s anatomy, with the goal of eventually identifying diseases or associated parasites. “For many marine invertebrates, not much is known about their anatomy and their histology particularly,” Freeman says. “During her literature review, she found that there are many ciliates—small parasitical organisms—associated with sea urchins, and in our primary searches we found these, as well.” The result? A research project focused on characterizing these organisms they found inside sea urchins, and seeing if there’s a threat to using the urchins as seafood for humans. “She wants to look at the bacterial populations, as well,” Freeman adds. “And I’m not sure it’s been done before.”
The key, explains Dennis, is that this could change the way researchers study sea urchin disease. Currently, traditional outbreak investigation entails collecting the sick urchins and examining their tissues with a microscope. “We’re in such a frontier here,” says Dennis. “If we look at tissue with a microscope, there are few references to tell us what’s normal. So, it’s hard to interpret an abnormality. This new research will illuminate abnormalities around St. Kitts, but it will also help to put together some baselines so researchers investigating sea urchin disease will have something to compare to.”