Monday, March 31, 2014

UVI Researchers ID Possible Cause of White Plague Coral Disease

UVI Researcher Dr. Marilyn E. Brandt inspects a colony of the large grooved brain coral (Colpophyllia natans) in the coral reef at Botany Bay at eight meters (26 feet) depth on Aug. 26, 2006. The coral was affected by a white plague disease, after the 2005 coral bleaching event. The darker brown-beige colors are living tissue and the gray areas are portions that were recently killed by the disease.
The Virgin Islands are known as a hot spot for tourism – snorkeling, diving, deep sea fishing, sailing and cruise ship visits. Unfortunately, say researchers at the University of the Virgin Islands, the territory is also a hotspot for coral disease. They have turned their attention to a specific threat to the territory’s coral reefs, known as white plague, which is one of the more abundant diseases killing coral here.

Recent investigations of the causes of severe coral diseases in Virgin Islands waters, led by Dr. Marilyn Brandt of UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, have identified viruses as a potential coral pathogen. Collaborating with Dr. Brandt on the study were Dr. Tyler Smith of UVI, Dr. Rebecca Vega-Thurber of Oregon State University and Oregon State Ph.D. graduate student Nitzan Soffer.

“The research suggests that white plague disease is associated with and may be caused by viruses,” Dr. Brandt said. “This is the first study of its kind that has identified viruses as a potential coral pathogen.” The research also showed the disease was triggered by contact of living coral tissue with sand and sediment after Hurricane Earl on Aug. 30, 2010.

That, hopefully, is a step toward achieving Dr. Brandt’s overall goal, which is “to try to understand the disease so that we can better manage it or even prevent it.” She first encountered white plague on a dive trip to the Cayman Islands in 1999. “It’s been a topic of my primary research since my undergrad days,” she said. “It was devastating to watch your favorite dive site just being destroyed because of this disease that we didn’t know anything about.”

White plague disease is known to affect more than 30 species of coral and was responsible for killing large amounts of coral after a warming event hit the territory in 2005, according to Dr. Brandt. In the 1990s, the disease was originally thought to be associated with a bacterial pathogen, but Dr. Brandt says “conflicting results from more recent studies, like ours, suggest that the causal agent may be more complex than originally thought.”

Brandt’s study, detailed in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, noted that “colony fragmentation and contact with sediment played primary roles in the initial appearance of disease, but that the disease was capable of spreading among colonies, which suggests secondary transmission is possible through some other, unidentified mechanism.”

“Understanding what is occurring on a small scale in a location like Brewer’s Bay (where the study was conducted) has high relevance for researchers throughout the Caribbean,” Dr. Smith said. In addition to his UVI research, he serves as research coordinator for the V.I.’s Territorial Coral Reef Monitoring Program, which was established by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Healthy coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and economically valuable ecosystems on earth, according to the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. They provide valuable and vital ecosystem services, serving as a source of food for millions, protecting coastlines from storms and erosion, and providing habitat, spawning and nursery grounds. Dr. Brandt thinks Virgin Islanders should be as concerned as she is about the plight of coral. “Corals provide the habitat. They are the ecosystem engineers for all the coral reefs which produce the things we like – like fish and conch and lobster. If the corals die and crumble away you don’t have that,” she said. “Without the corals which are the fundamental builders of that system we would lose much.”

The local research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the NSF-supported Virgin Islands Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VI-EPSCoR). Recent improvements in the marine science facilities at UVI helped to make these studies possible. Dr. Brandt and UVI were also awarded a grant from NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program to continue studies of this and other important coral diseases in the territory.

Brandt’s research has garnered international attention in papers based on the study published in 2013 in two scientific journals – PLOS ONE in February, and the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal (ISME J) in September. It also drew national attention from the NBC News-Science website in October.

Journal entries based on Dr. Brandt’s study are available from the following websites:


Submitted late 2012 - Published Feb. 20, 2013 – The Ecology Piece - Disturbance Driven Colony Fragmentation as a Driver of a Coral Disease Outbreak

· International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal:

Potential Role of Viruses – Soffer – primary author of second study – analysis of lab data

Study results are also featured on the NBC News-Science website:


UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies was established in 1999. It is a research and outreach arm of UVI's Marine Science Program. UVI’s College of Science and Mathematics offers degree programs in Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Marine Biology, Mathematics, Physics and Process Technology.

Monday, March 17, 2014

UVI STEM Graduates Excel Beyond National Average

UVI students conduct experiments on the University's Albert A. Sheen Campus.

Doctoral degrees are closer to reality for University of the Virgin Islands Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates than their national counterparts. Estimates are that nationally only 50 percent of students who start Ph.D. programs in the sciences complete their degrees. UVI data shows that 88 percent of the students in the Minority Access to Research Careers program that start working on a Ph.D. complete that degree. In 2013, five UVI STEM alumni have completed Ph.D.’s.
  • Bertrum Foster (‘03), mathematics major, earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Howard University.
  • Shana Augustin (‘06), biology major, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in neuroscience.· Jennifer (Greaux) Thomas (‘06), chemistry major, earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at Florida International University.
  • Kailah Davis (‘07), computer science major, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Utah in biomedical informatics.
  • Verleen McSween (‘07), biology major, earned a Ph.D. in vision science from the Indiana University and now has a postdoctoral position at the Indiana University School of Optometry.

Long term data shows that 14 percent of UVI’s Bachelor of Science graduates in the fields of biology and chemistry complete Ph.D. degrees. Approximately 13 percent of these graduates complete medical degrees. Others complete masters degrees, degrees in pharmacy, dentistry and other fields.

“It feels wonderful to have a high rate of alumni obtaining Ph.D. degrees from highly competitive doctoral programs,” said Dr. Teresa Turner, UVI marine biology professor. “The fact that UVI alumni can be so successful speaks to the high quality of the UVI undergraduate experience.”

Dr. Turner said that the curriculum at UVI is rigorous and the grading standards are high. The University’s faculty members involve students in research and UVI has partnerships with a large number of institutions where undergraduates can have summer research experiences, including Boston University, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Iowa, the University of Florida, and others. UVI alumni have also gone on to earn prestigious graduate fellowships.

“I am proud of UVI’s alumni,” said Dr. Turner. “They conduct research that has an impact on the territory, the nation, and the world. Many alumni are conducting research in areas including coral reefs, fisheries, HIV, stem cells, eye diseases, immunology, neuroscience and the use of computer science techniques to gain information from medical records.”

“UVI encourages its graduates to seek higher degrees,” she said. “Our goal is to prepare our students for leadership positions in the Virgin Islands, nationally, and internationally. We would love to have a higher percentage of the faculty at UVI be UVI graduates. These alumni provide role models for our students.”

So far at least two of UVI’s recent alumni have granted her wish. Dr. Yakini Brandy (‘07) earned a bachelor’s of science in chemistry from UVI. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from Howard University in 2012 and is currently employed at UVI as a chemist. Dr. Bertrum Foster, assistant professor of mathematics, returned to UVI this spring as a faculty member.

In an effort to inspire undergraduate students to earn graduate degrees, alumni are urged to come back to the territory to share their research experience. Dr. Shana Augustin, a neurophysiologist, returned to the University as part of the Emerging Caribbean Scientist’s research seminar series in September of 2013. She shared the process, insights and results of the Parkinson’s disease research she is conducting at the University of Chicago. The title of Dr. Augustin’s seminar was “Cyclic AMP and Afferent Activity Govern Bidirectional Synaptic Plasticity in Striatopallidal Neurons.”

Dr. Turner said that earning a doctoral degree trains students to become leaders in research and policy. There are many advantages for students who earn Ph.D.’s:

· People with Ph.D. degrees earn higher salaries.

· People with Ph.D.’s have low unemployment rates.

· Ph.D. holders can work in government, in industry, in universities or become entrepreneurs.

· In the sciences, tuition is waived in doctoral programs and students are paid for the research they conduct.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Social Science Building Grand Opening - St. Thomas Campus

UVI’s Social Sciences Department hosted a grand opening ceremony of its newly remodeled building on the St. Thomas Campus on Thursday, Feb. 27. The ceremony included presentations by Dr. Simon B. Jones-Hendrickson, dean of UVI’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, President David Hall, and featured speaker former Governor and UVI Professor Emeritus Dr. Charles W. Turnbull. (Click photo to view larger image.)

From left, College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Dean Dr.
Simon B. Jones-Hendrickson, UVI President Dr. David Hall, and
Interim Vice Provost for Research and Public Service Dr. Frank Mills.
Dr. Dion Phillips
Dr. Malik Sekou
Dr. Charles W. Turnbull

UVI students, from left, Elvaneice Huggins, Khaliesha Dias
and Verlyndeh Rogers pose before of a mural they
painted in the entry foyer of the newly remodeled
Social Sciences Building on UVI’s St. Thomas Campus.
Dr. Simon Jones-Hendrickson
with retired Associate Professor
of Social Work Adelle Belle-Barry.

VI Calypso King
Patrick “Soljah” Farrell 


The morning also included a musical presentation by the reigning VI Calypso Monarch Patrick “Soljah” Farrell, who is also a UVI student, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours of the Social Sciences Building.  Along with Gov. Turnbull, numerous former Social Sciences faculty and staff attended the opening. Social Sciences Chair Dr. Dion Phillips and former Dean and Chair of Social Sciences Dr. Malik Sekou served as masters of ceremony.

The renovated Social Sciences building features a dean’s office,
11 faculty offices, a Psychology Lab shown here, and a conference
room that will feature videoconferencing.