Santa Catalina Science Teachers’ PhD Research

Few people realize that receiving a graduate degree takes years of research. I decided to ask some of our science teachers about their research and the process of pursuing graduate degrees.

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” -Zora Neale Hurston


One Fish, Two Fish, Rockfish, Retinal View Fish

Dr. Reilly received his PhD through Hopkins Marine Station and Stanford University. Dr. Reilly came up with a giant question, one he would later research for his PhD work, when he was listening to one of his professors lecture about the visual system of animals. The professor was talking about a study done on toads and their night vision. The study found that when the toad was warmed up, its night vision got worse. Similarly, when the toad was put in a colder environment, its night vision got better. This research made Dr. Reilly wonder how temperature would affect an animal whose body temperature is constantly changing with their environment, fish. His curiosity in fish led him to ask the question: what sets the limits to night vision in fish?

To find the answers to his question, Dr. Reilly studied 2 nocturnal rockfish and 2 diurnal rockfish species. He built an instrument that allowed him to calculate how temperature would affect the rockfishes’ ability to see visible light. The machine was able to gradually dim lights that were being flashed into a rockfish’s eyes in order to calculate when the fish would switch from seeing the light to not seeing the light. He used electroretinograms which measure the electrical response in cells of the retina at different light levels. Dr. Reilly found out that by changing the temperature, the limit to low-light sensitivity would change, especially in the rockfish that use night vision to hunt. When the nocturnal rockfish were exposed to higher temperatures they saw light that wasn’t actually there. This “false light” looked to them like a static television screen. Even though Dr. Reilly was able to successfully figure out how temperature affected nocturnal rockfishes vision, his conclusions led him to ask even more questions that don’t have a definite answer. For example: “How would the growing effects of climate change on the ocean’s temperature affect the fish who hunt at night?” and “Would these changing temperatures push nocturnal fish to hunt at different times during the day?”.

One question that Dr. Reilly took the time to research was: “How would coastal light pollution affect nocturnal fish?” This question is especially prevalent today because of the growing development of hotels on the water that emit a huge amount of light 24 hours a day. After building a computer model that could measure how much and what type of light is seen at 10 meters depth, Dr. Reilly discovered that light pollution has the biggest effect on when today’s nocturnal fish can feed. A fish’s feeding time could change from 5 hours to 1 hour a night due to light pollution.

When I asked Dr. Reilly what challenges and obstacles he met throughout his research he told me that one of the biggest obstacles he met was the amount of time it took him to build his own protocol and instruments. Because the majority of the instruments that he needed for his research were not invented yet, it took a long time to create them by himself through a process of trial and error. Even though he met obstacles along the way that slowed him down, Dr. Reilly said that it was so awesome to get paid to learn and research that he did not want it to end. Dr. Reilly’s biggest advice for people who want to study science throughout college is to be curious and take yourself seriously. He says that studying science in college is about becoming an intellectual so treat your professors as aspirational peers, not just as teachers.


This little pig went to the market, this little pig stayed home because of transmissible gastroenteritis

Dr. Williams attended Montana State University for her PhD in microbiology. She was  part of a group researching a recently discovered disease called transmissible gastroenteritis (TGE) that is found in pigs. Transmissible gastroenteritis is caused by the sun-shaped coronavirus which can cause respiratory and intestinal problems in pigs. Respiratory issues such as sneezing and coughing are some of the side effects that accompany the intense vomiting and diarrhea that pigs experience when they carry the disease. Sadly, when baby pigs catch TGE they often die because the diarrhea causes them to lose a lot of fluid and become dehydrated. The group of researchers that Dr. Williams worked with to find a vaccine for the disease were largely funded by a company that was trying to help the pigs and the farmers that were affected by this disease. To discover the vaccine, Dr. Williams lab group wanted to genetically engineer the salmonella bacteria so that it would express the proteins of the coronavirus. In the end they were not able to accomplish this for the particular salmonella bacteria they worked with.

Dr. Williams was in charge of one aspect of the research which she then decided to focus on for her PhD thesis. Her thesis topic emerged when she noticed that coronavirus became a persistent infection whenever they were testing and working with it. In other words, every time they messed with the virus it would become an infection. She decided to focus her work on the question: “What was making the virus a persistent infection?” She was able to identify that the infection was due to an interferon response the body produced in order to defend itself from the virus.

Fortunately for the pigs (and somewhat sadly for the researchers who wanted to discover a vaccine), the virus surprisingly mutated. The sudden mutation caused the intestinal side effects of TGE to disappear, leaving only the respiratory side effects. The mutation led the company that funded the project to back out because the vaccine for TGE was no longer of commercial interest. Although Dr. Williams’ discovery was never used in a vaccine for the pigs, the pigs lived happily ever after, albeit with occasional sneezing and coughing. Dr. Williams was still able to use all of the valuable research to complete her PhD by writing a thesis paper and participating in her PhD defense. She also presented her research to the American Society of Virology (dedicated to the study of viruses). Being accustomed to a field with a fair amount of female scientists as colleagues, she was surprised to find that the vast majority of the virology scientists at the convention were men.

Upon asking Dr. Williams if she had had any mentors throughout her PhD research, she told me about a woman named Linda Man, who was getting her PhD in microbiology to pursue an ambition she had of being in charge of her own clinical lab. Dr. Williams said she looked up to Linda because of her efficiency in the lab and her ability to balance her PhD work and her personal life.

I asked Dr. Williams what advice she had to offer to students who wanted to continue studying science throughout college. One of her tips was to choose a college that has a large and well-known science department, because when there are more people involved, you have a better chance of making useful connections and contacts in your field of choice. She also said that it is important to use undergraduate years as a time to figure out what you are good at and what you are drawn to.

Dr. Reilly’s PhD Thesis:

Dr. Williams’ PhD Thesis:;sequence=1