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Wyngaard Uses Fulbright Scholarship to Broaden Copepod Research

Owusu-Ansah Seeks Fulbright Culture at JMU

David Owusu-Ansah wants to foster a Fulbright culture at JMU that would increase international exposure for faculty.

“From going overseas, we are able to develop relationships with other faculty members on the international scene,” said Owusu-Ansah, professor of African studies and special assistant to the president on faculty diversity.

The Fulbright Program is a global educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Since its founding in 1946, the Fulbright Program has awarded nearly 300,000 professors with scholarships allowing them to teach and research abroad.

Hoping to spur dialog about the program at JMU, Owusu-Ansah hosted a meeting Nov. 5, 2009 in Taylor Hall where three of JMU's most recent Fulbright scholars, Grace Wyngaard, Brian Augustine and Teresa Harris, discussed the process of securing the grant. Augustine and Wyngaard also discussed their experiences abroad; Harris is now in South Africa teaching early childhood education. (Read about Harris' scholarship.)

Wyngaard, a professor of biology, spent three months at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil last summer, where she worked with a team investigating the evolutionary behavior of microcrustaceans. She also taught molecular biology to undergraduate students.

“The wonderful thing about teaching in Brazil,” Wyngaard said, “is that when you’re trying to show students the diversity of invertibrates, you can go out either on campus or to local ponds or streams or the beach, and collect specimens we can only see in pictures and books.”

From January to July 2009, chemistry Associate Professor Brian Augustine taught and researched at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Augustine had only left the country once before, spending six months in Canada. His family had never traveled abroad.

“So I packed up the family and moved them to South Africa for seven months,” he said with a chuckle. (Read Augustine's account of his trip.)

Augustine and Wyngaard relayed some of their more memorable Fulbright experiences with a group of faculty members who attended the Nov. 5 meeting. Owusu-Ansah wants to continue the discussion with future meetings.

“Through these particular initiatives, faculty and students are getting very diverse experiences, and it fits very well into the university goal,” Owusu-Ansah said.

More information about the Fulbright Program is available on the Council for International Exchange of Scholars Web site. (http://www.cies.org/).

They live in all the world's oceans and in the majority of its freshwater habitats. And though they are so diminutive they can barely be seen by the naked eye, copepods' importance in the food chain is as gargantuan as their numbers.

So what are copepods?

Biology Professor Grace Wyngaard describes them as cycloptic microcrustaceans less than a millimeter in size, equipped with many pairs of appendages and antennae. They are extremely abundant and play an integral role in all marine ecosystems, providing a chief source of food for a variety of species.

"A lot of problems with these marine and freshwater organisms, they're global problems. These organisms don't respect any state or local boundaries. They're all over the world," said Wyngaard, who has been studying copepods for more than 25 years. Last summer, she spent three month's on a Fulbright-funded research trip to Brazil, where she studied the evolutionary traits of marine copepods.

Until the Brazil trip, most of Wyngaard's research involved freshwater copepods. "This was my first experience in working extensively in the marine environment," Wyngaard said. "In my first 25 or 30 years of working with freshwater copepods in lakes, almost all of them looked the same."

The copepods she studied in Brazil were not typical. Some had two or three eyes instead of one, some had square heads instead of round ones, some had appendages that looked like giant fans. 

Collecting water samples from her usual beach spot in Sao Paulo was "almost like going into a monster movie underneath the sea and seeing all these strange little creatures," she said.

Biologists may have witnessed an evolutionary phenomenon in copepods. In establishing a niche in the extremely diverse Brazilian ecosystem, some free-living copepods have become parasites that infest fish, sponges, crabs, coral and other marine life.

In adapting to this parasitic lifestyle, these copepods lose a variety of abilities and appendages, barely resembling their free-living forms. This in itself is not strange. What is strange is that some of these simplified parasitic copepods have apparently evolved back into their free-living forms, sometimes within a generation or two.

"That was pretty unusual," Wyngaard said. "A lot of people were skeptical of that, so I went down there to test some of those ideas."

When not collecting samples, Wyngaard worked with graduate and undergraduate students in labs at the University of Sao Paulo, teaching biology and studying physical and molecular adaptations in copepods.

"They have superb facilities" at the University of Sao Paulo, Wyngaard said, noting there are three DNA sequencing centers on the USP campus.

Wyngaard plans to return to Brazil this summer to finish analyzing the data collected during her Fulbright trip. Maybe then we will gain better insight into the drastic, high-speed evolutionary behavior of these vital marine organisms.

"I hope to continue working with [my team] until I retire," Wyngaard said. "When someone asked if I had problems with homesickness I was like, ‘No! I don't want to go back home!'"


Published January 2010