Sea Otter Research Graduate Students

A scientific project as complex as the sea otter research project can only be carried out with the diligent work of very talented graduate students. Meet the current and former graduate students of Pat Conradís laboratory.

Dan RejmanekDan Rejmanek

The focus of my research is on the ecology and molecular biology of Sarcocysitis neurona. S. neurona is a single-cell parasite that infects and kills a variety of marine mammals, including sea otters. Opossums are the only known animals to shed infective S. neurona parasites into the environment. Opossums were introduced in California in the late 1800s for their meat and pelt. Using an ecological and a molecular approach, Iím learning more about how S. neurona moves between opossums and otters, as well as other susceptible animals. I do this first by identifying the prevalence and risk factors for S. neurona infection among the coastal opossum population. And then I look at the genetic relationships of S. neurona parasites shed by opossums with those that infect sea otters and other marine mammals.

Haydee DabritzHaydee Dabritz

After completing my B.Sc. degree in Microbiology in 2002, I entered the doctoral program in epidemiology at the University of California, Davis. I investigated factors associated with exposure to Toxoplasma gondii in terrestrial animals from the Morro Bay area by sampling blood from cats and rodents, and testing cat feces for the presence of T. gondii oocysts. My doctoral research also included a telephone survey to estimate the cat population size and amount of outdoor fecal deposition by owned cats. I completed my dissertation in September 2006 and immediately began a one-year assignment for the California Epidemiologic Investigation Service in Yolo County to analyze data from an infant feeding study. I currently work at the California Department of Public Health Infant Botulism Treatment and Prevention Program in Richmond as a research epidemiologist.

Karen ShapiroKaren Shapiro

My interest in water quality research started at a young age as I was raised in an arid climate in Israel where water scarcity has always been a main concern in daily life. After completing veterinary school and working as a clinician for two years, I decided to pursue my interest in waterborne infectious disease research and joined Dr. Conradís Lab where I am enrolled in a comparative pathology PhD and an MPVM graduate program. For my PhD dissertation, I am investigating how Toxoplasma gondii oocysts shed in the feces of cats are transported from land to sea where sea otters are becoming infected. The specific question we are trying to answer is whether wetland degradation along the California coast is leading to increased contamination of nearshore waters with T. gondii. This parasite can also infect people who ingest water contaminated with the parasite. We hope that understanding how T. gondii behaves in aquatic environments will help implement better water treatment and habitat conservation measures to prevent infections in people and wildlife.

More information:

A short video on sea otters and environmental health.

My first publication on Toxoplasma gondii oocysts and surrogate microspheres.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19060174?ordinalpos=1 &itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum
The paper describes why sea otters may be particularly at risk for infection with this parasite based on the physical properties of oocysts that govern their transport behavior in aquatic habitats.

Liz VanWormerLiz VanWormer

After studying veterinary medicine in Michigan, where I became fascinated with the overlap between human, domestic animal and wildlife health, I joined a large research team at the University of California, Davis, which was studying the protozoan parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. As wild and domestic cats are the only known hosts that shed this parasite into the environment, disease due to Toxoplasma in sea otters has sparked concern about potential land-to-sea pathogen transmission. As a wildlife epidemiology graduate student, Iím studying the terrestrial transmission of Toxoplasma in animals ranging from wild rodents and feral cats to mountain lions. We hope that understanding the land-based dynamics of this parasite, which can infect a wide variety of animals as well as humans, will help to reduce exposure in people and sensitive wildlife species. Spending time outside -- doing fieldwork, volunteering with local environmental education programs, and hiking new trails -- inspires my interest in wildlife health.

Lauren GarskeLauren Garske

Iíve always lived along the Pacific Ocean and have a deep connection with issues relating to ocean health. Generally, Iím interested in how we humans interact with the nearshore ocean environment and influence its many ecosystems. One of the most complex yet critically important aspects of this is how non-point source pollution from rivers and storm drains is transported to and through the nearshore (up to 2 kilometers off the coastline and 30 meters in depth). To address this, my PhD research integrates methods from physical oceanography, toxicology and marine ecology. I believe that if we can understand how contaminated water moves within the nearshore, we can develop models to predict pollutant exposure in ecosystems like the kelp forests where sea otters live. We can then test these predictions by quantifying the concentration of selected pollutants (e.g., heavy metals, pesticides, pathogens) in both biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystem. The model Iím currently developing focuses on the near-shore transport of Toxoplasma gondii, a pathogen which has led to a severe increase in sea otter deaths throughout central California. Based on detailed oceanographic data that Iíve been collecting in the Monterey Bay, my model will be combined with other research efforts that estimate the input of T. gondii at the land-sea interface; together, these will be used to understand where in the nearshore environment sea otters are becoming infected. Ultimately, my work will provide tools to help guide environmental management and policy decisions.

More information:



Copyright©2009 The Regents of the University of California