From Desert to Ocean, Toxicology Student Absorbs Marine Sponge Info

UM doctoral student Amelia Clayshulte spent summer at Smithsonian Institute in Panama

UM doctoral student Amelia Clayshulte (second from left) and fellow graduate students study various marine sponges at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – It wouldn’t seem Amelia Clayshulte was destined to study marine sponges, being a native of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

However, the doctoral student in the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy grew up going with her mom’s family to the coast of North Carolina, where she would spend a week each summer exploring salt marshes that opened her mind from its landlocked state.

“I loved every minute of it,” Clayshulte said. “The ocean was completely alien from the desert I was used to. There is just so much life there that created an endless number of questions in me.”

Hooked on the ocean, Clayshulte was ready to pursue her passion. After finishing her master’s degree in genetics and molecular biology at the University of North Carolina, she joined the lab of professors Marc Slattery and Deborah Gochfeld in the UM Department of BioMolecular Sciences.

The duo’s research focuses on marine sponges in the context of toxicology, which helped transition Clayshulte into the marine sciences. Within environmental toxicology, researchers identify risk factors and health indicators to understand impacts of chemical exposure and habitat changes on sponges and other organisms.

Amelia Clayshulte worked with rope sponges, specifically Amphimedon compressa, in Panama. She studies the red variety as part of her Ph.D. research at Ole Miss. Submitted photo

Studying marine sponges allows scientists to explore certain natural chemical structures that might not be present in land-based natural products. These compounds may contribute to the discovery of new antibacterial or anticancer drugs for humans.

A third-year doctoral student, Clayshulte was among 15 students selected to the internationally competitive, 21-day sponge taxonomy workshop offered over the summer through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at the Bocas Research Station in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

“Amelia was a great candidate for this course simply due to her interest and enthusiasm for studying sponges,” said Gochfeld, principal scientist in the National Center for Natural Products Research and research professor of environmental toxicology. “She had a basic understanding of sponge biology, but the course provided her with much more detailed knowledge.”

Clayshulte worked on differentiating sponge species, a difficult task due to sponges’ few genetic markers. Along with attending lectures and completing hands-on lab activities, students identified preserved sponge specimens by examining their skeletons.

Plenty of time also was reserved for boating and snorkeling at field sites.

Cole Easson, a 2013 Ole Miss doctoral graduate and instructor at the course, worked with participants on sponge ecology, physiology and microbial symbioses. He assisted students on their individual projects while running field experiments and exercises with other instructors.

A past student of the course, Easson said one of the course’s benefits is the firm foundation it provides for any area of sponge research area that may be of interest.

Amelia Clayshulte works on her research in the laboratory of professors Marc Slattery and Deborah Gochfeld in the Department of BioMolecular Sciences. Submitted photo

“It makes students aware of the great sponge research out there, and they get to meet some of the big names in the field, such as Robert Thacker and Cristina Diaz,” Easson said. “I hope that Amelia feels like she has a good base of knowledge with which pursue her research, and that she feels welcomed in the sponge research community as a colleague.”

Much like the North Carolina shore differed from her southern New Mexico home, Panama was a new and exciting environment for Clayshulte. She went on eco tours and saw exotic animals such as red frogs, sloths, capuchin monkeys and caimans, a reptile similar to an alligator or crocodile.

Clayshulte spent one night on a snorkeling bioluminescence tour that she said “looked like the starlit sky, but underwater.” The tourism industry is a major part of Panama’s culture, and Clayshulte was inspired by the way the local people work to maintain the health of the ecosystems.

With the course complete, Clayshulte returned stateside with more knowledge and experience, ready to make her own impact through her research.

“One of the most important things I got from this experience was the confidence to further develop projects I want to pursue,” Clayshulte said. “Having established professors as a sounding board was invaluable, as was meeting several professors in the sponge community that I would definitely like to work with after I complete my Ph.D.”