With NSF Fellowship, Student Researcher Explores Undersea World

Beneath the surface of the sea exists a vast world that UNC Charlotte student researcher Tyler Carrier seeks to explore through research at the intersection of evolutionary ecology, oceanography, and microbiology.

“The questions I am attempting to answer are deeply rooted in fundamental evolutionary and ecological processes, and are also vastly unexplored, which leaves a lot of room to expand our understanding of how and why microbes are essential for life,” says Carrier, who is pursuing his doctoral degree in biology. “From talking with various people in the field of larval biology as well as animal-microbial symbiosis, there is some excitement as to what we can find out.”

He is investigating how larvae endure starvation from a microbial perspective and how that response may change depending on the geographical location of the parental habitat. This investigation will begin to unravel whether microbes help animals cope with environmental stressors and provide a landscape for adaptation. Carrier believes the implications of this may apply more broadly to many other animals as well as plants.

Carrier’s work resulted in his selection for a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees.

He travels to field stations throughout the world to conduct experiments in the field, where his animals are found. Last summer, he conducted experiments at Friday Harbor Laboratories in Friday Harbor, Washington and at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, and plans to conduct future experiments at the Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences, part of the University of Sydney, Australia.

sea urchins in hand“Those who visit the world’s oceans find invertebrates at the seaside, and what they often don’t see is that those animals have water column-dwelling embryos and larvae,” Carrier says. “As a result of this tactic they use, larvae can be swept vast distances from the parental site. Many of these larvae have to find their own food in the form of single cell phytoplankton. At the surface, this doesn’t seem to be an issue, but where phytoplankton reside and their abundance varies greatly in the ocean with respect to both space and time. This could lead larvae to endure extensive periods of starvation.”

By conducting hands-on research by the sea, Carrier is able to study how larvae respond naturally to situations in the environment. “This is one of the first time that we are looking at the microbiome – or microbial communities – of marine invertebrate larvae, especially in their natural environment,” he says.

Carrier works closely at UNC Charlotte with his mentor Adam Reitzel, a biological sciences assistant professor, in The Reitzel Lab.

“The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the appreciation for the roles bacteria play in animals, from development to longevity,” Reitzel says. “While much of the focus has been on mammals, for example humans, the complex and intricate functions of bacteria in the biology of marine invertebrates remains little studied.”
Carrier’s research is important in helping to address the paucity of knowledge in this area, Reitzel says, by considering how bacterial communities form and change their association with sea urchin larvae based on shifting environmental conditions.

“Tyler’s work has the possibility to tell the scientific community something quite novel and to help expand our appreciation for animal-bacteria interactions in the natural environment,” he says.

While a member of Reitzel’s research lab, Carrier has received highly competitive grants and published academic papers – including one in Symbiosis and another in Aquaculture International. His selection as one of 2,000 NSF Graduate Research Fellows chosen from 17,000 applicants has allowed Carrier to focus his energy on research and classes rather than worrying so much about financial burdens and other obligations that graduate students face.

“Upon hearing I was awarded the fellowship, I was in complete shock and disbelief because this is one of the most sought-after fellowships in the nation,” Carrier says. “There are also special Fellows-only programs that allow me to go to various laboratories around the world to conduct experiments and continue to enhance my training and network with the world’s best minds.”

Words: Brittany Algiere | Images: Lynn Roberson