Jesse Gwinn holds a stoplight parrotfish from sampling in the Virgin Islands. The stoplight parrotfish is one of the species she's looking at in her project.

The Dauphin Island Sea Lab is a training ground for marine scientists in all areas of study. Students of all ages are given the opportunity to experience the research, the tools, and the methods from published faculty. 

For some it’s a small town feel at the lab. Everyone knows everyone, and no lab is off limits to those looking to expand their skills. 

From intern to Ph.D. student, Jesse Gwinn can share first hand how her experience working in different labs shaped her path. Gwinn participated in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates under Dr. Alison Robertson. Since then, she’s worked on different collaborative projects with Dr. Will Patterson and Dr. Ron Kiene, and is currently a student with Dr. Robertson - each faculty member with a different research focus. These projects have all been collaborative and allowed the development of new skills and participation in interdisciplinary research.

“Since I’ve worked between three labs at DISL, I’ve gained experience that allowed me to hit the ground running with my Ph.D.,” Gwinn shared. “The diversity of these experiences, and being exposed to different lab techniques and a variety of fieldwork, has really helped me as a young scientist.”

Gwinn greatly appreciates the guidance of Dr. Robertson. 

“Alison has helped me see that I am capable than more than I initially realized,” Gwinn explained. “I’m more confident about my abilities and thinking on my feet.”

A part of Gwinn’s thesis research under the guidance of Dr. Robertson is understanding the accumulation of ciguatoxins in herbivores. Dr. Robertson is a leader in ciguatera research in the marine science community.

“We know that ciguatoxins are produced by algae, move through marine food webs, and accumulate in fish, but we are less clear on the pathways, mechanisms, and the effects they are having on fish that are exposed to them, or what changes happen to the toxin along the way,” Gwinn said.

The research focuses in tropical areas of the Western Atlantic such as St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, where ciguatera fish poisoning is considered hyper-endemic. Gwinn studies ciguatoxin prevalence and distribution in parrotfish and surgeonfish, which are dominant herbivores in these ecosystems.

“If we can identify differences in toxicity between parrotfish and surgeonfish, then we can begin to trace the route through the food web that leads to human illness,” Gwinn divulged. “Through other aspects of my work, I hope to be able to identify biomarkers of ciguatoxin exposure, which may improve our ability to detect ciguatoxins in fish.”

Gwinn began her Ph.D. in the fall of 2017 at the University of South Alabama. She’s not sure where the tide will take her, but she is taking in the experience and every opportunity along the way.

“I’ve already gotten to do so much and moving forward will be even more exciting,” Gwinn said.

Gwinn’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation “Partnerships in International Research and Education (NSF-PIRE)” program led by Dr. Robertson and the NOAA Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms Program.