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Tools of the Trade

Person-to-person: Kira Turnham
12 September 2019

Photo of Kira Turnham.How do you study coral reefs from the center of landlocked Pennsylvania? With access to world-class facilities and an airport. 

“Our lab has been collecting from the same stretches of the reefs near Palau for the last six years to see how the composition of symbiont species changes over time,” said Kira Turnham, a graduate student in biology in Todd LaJeunesse’s lab.

Beyond diving gear, the tools that Turnham and her collaborators use to collect samples of corals and their intracellular symbionts are fairly basic. They use a camera to photograph the coral and a hammer and chisel to snap off a small piece. Then they place the sample in a plastic bag for transport back to Penn State, where they can take advantage of the facilities.

“We also build underwater platforms at different reefs that we use for a coral transplant experiment,” said Turnham. “We cut out these PVC platforms using a tile saw and use a lot of zip ties to hold things together.”

As part of the transplant experiment, Turnham and her colleagues swap corals that they find in warmer inshore waters with those found in cooler offshore waters, each of which has a different symbiont species that predominates. This allows the team to observe the physiology of the symbionts and how symbionts compete in different habitats.

“We’re only at reefs about four to six weeks each year,” said LaJeunesse. “The rest of the year is spent in the lab—processing samples, performing genetic analyses, analyzing data, writing papers and grant proposals, et cetera. Where better to do that than Penn State? We have an excellent DNA core facility and collaborators in genomics and bioinformatics that at are the top of their field.”

On campus, Turnham also works with a population of upside-down jellyfish, which is maintained by the laboratory of Mónica Medina, a professor of biology who also studies corals. This particular species is symbiotic with the same type of microalgal symbionts found in corals, so the local and easy-to-maintain population offers a unique perspective on these symbionts. Turnham’s interest in marine symbioses began with her undergraduate research at New Mexico State University, where she studied how bobtail squid and their luminescent bacterial symbionts evolved together. While she was an undergraduate student, Turnham received a scholarship to travel to a variety of remote locations in the Philippines and collect these organisms.

“This experience opened my eyes to the science being conducted around the world, even in the most remote places,” said Turnham. “I resonated with the universal aspect of science and the importance of being curious about nature. And this was really inspiring to me. I came back with the intention of taking advantage of the opportunities that I have and of obtaining the highest degree possible in my field. I feel very lucky to have found a program at Penn State that has so many amazing resources and colleagues that help support my dream.”