NZ Sabbatical: The Quest for Aquatic Viruses in Middle Earth

Faculty at Cornell are eligible every 12 semesters for academic sabbatical. While this often conjures talk of a “working holiday” or “extended vacation”, in fact a sabbatical is nothing of the sort – it’s a chance for faculty to hit the “refresh” button by working differently from their normal job. Sometimes faculty go on sabbatical while staying in Ithaca to give them a chance to write a textbook, to write material for a new class, or learn new techniques. Often faculty work at another institution or in collaboration with industry to gain wider perspective of their discipline. Ian’s been teaching at Cornell since January 2009, so is well overdue for a “refresh”. And so he decided to travel to the antipode of New York (well, a little further west to the antipode – to New Zealand) to take his sabbatical.

So what is he going to do while there? And why NZ? He has several aims over the next few months.

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Auckland from the Harbor – so many aquatic habitats!

First and foremost, it’s a chance to apply research approaches to a completely different environment, both in terms of physical environment and institutional environment. He’ll be continuing research of viruses associated with crustaceans and echinoderms, which is synergistic with his research in Ithaca. New Zealand’s marine environment has several really interesting features which make it attractive as a comparison to environments on the North American Pacific Coast. It has been biologically isolated – at least from a terrestrial standpoint – from Australia for at least 80 million years, meaning that it has very unique flora and fauna – many aquatic species are endemic to New Zealand. New Zealand has a unique marine biogeography – species exist on one side of the North Island that do not occur on the West, and there are different species in the South Island compared to the North. In terms of echinoderms – New Zealand is home to Stichaster australis along its west coast, which is analagous to the North American Pacific species Pisaster ochraceus in that it is a keystone species. To date there hasn’t been any wasting recorded in S. australis, however Ian will be looking at the native, asymptomatic flora of these important animals and how these viruses are distributed geographically between the islands. He’ll also be looking at vertical transmission (parent to spawn) of viruses and other microorganisms in the sea star Patiriella regularis.  His activities are a collaboration with two labs – Mary Sewell at the University of Auckland (https://unidirectory.auckland.ac.nz/profile/m-sewell) and Simon Davy at Victoria University Wellington (https://www.victoria.ac.nz/sbs/about/staff/simon-davy). In addition to projects looking at echinoderms, Ian will hopefully have a chance to work on crustacean-associated viruses with Richard Taylor (http://www.marine.auckland.ac.nz/people/profile/rb-taylor) and Gillian Lewis (https://unidirectory.auckland.ac.nz/profile/gd-lewis).

NZ sea stars and other invertebrates – top left is Patiriella regularis, top right are Green-lipped mussels, and bottom is the keystone species Stichaster australis.

The second activity Ian will be performing in New Zealand is to establish and/or strengthen opportunities for Cornell undergraduates to come to NZ for semester abroad – and perhaps for summer research as well. Ian serves as the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Marine Biology, which means he interfaces with a lot of marine-focused undergraduates on campus. A frequent question is “Where should I go abroad to study marine biology?”. Ian will be working to identify potential venues for study abroad opportunities, and will work with faculty at Auckland and VUW to see where and how Cornell students may participate in research amongst NZ’s fascinating ecosystems.

Finally, Ian will be using the opportunity while in NZ to play “catch up”. The last 9 years have seen a huge explosion in new bioinformatic and statistical tools and explosion in new microbial ecology research. Ian will use this time to learn new tools and techniques, catch up on literature which is peripheral to his research interests, and to re-develop his class in biological oceanography.

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How many folks knew that the programming language R started at the University of Auckland?

And in addition to all this, Ian will also be pursuing the first ever hobbit and/or ring wraith virome. A key question in biology is: How do hobbits prevent diarrhetic disease from bare feet? Ian’s hypothesis is that the hair on their feet contain a microbiome that is beneficial and prevents invasion by pathogenic bacteria – and their disappearance since 2003 relates to extreme weather’s effect on the microbiome, which in turn leads to more pathogenic bacteria – that there is a “shift” from beneficial to a “disease-associated” community. Funding for this part of his work is still pending.

Stay tuned for adventures in NZ!

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