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Scientist Spotlight: Jana Thoma

November 14, 2010

Jana Thoma is a 30 year-old scientist from University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where she is completing her doctorate in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology. She received her bachelor degrees in chemistry and biology from Berry College in Georgia, and received her master’s degree in Coastal Sciences from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab.

Jana’s father gave her an appreciation of biology and the inspiration to study science. He encouraged her to ask questions about the natural world around her and shared with her his interest in the living world. They participated in science-related activities together, including watching science programs on television.

Jana Thoma

Jana Thoma

During the Deep Sea Coral Expedition, Jana is studying gorgonians, such as sea fans. Many gorgonians have a net-like mesh appearance, are fairly thin, and many have structure similar to a palm leaf. Gorgonians are animals that function individually and as a whole. They are made of small animals referred to as polyps (each polyp is basically a mouth and stomach). These animals function together for the benefit of the whole colony. Gorgonians live in high-current environments attached to hard surfaces like rock. They thrive in this type of environment because the currents carry nutrients they can feed off of. The gorgonian polyps are equipped with nematocysts that can sting or stick to prey, such as plankton, as it passes by.

Each specimen collected is documented, and then preserved in either sea water or ethanol for further analysis in the lab. These samples will be used to construct a gorgonian family tree. In the lab, Jana extracts mitochondrial DNA from each sample and generates additional copies of this DNA. She uses fluorescent dyes to mark nucleotides within the DNA sequence. Nucleotides are building blocks of DNA, such as adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. As the dye-labeled DNA sequence is passed through a laser, the nucleotides light up like a Christmas tree. Jana can then compare color-coded DNA charts called chromatograms to help construct her gorgonian family tree.

Jana enjoys studying gorgonians because, “It is like history’s mysteries on two levels: literature and research.” A lot of documented research about gorgonians has been lost or has not been completed. Studying the DNA of gorgonians can help people understand how different organisms may be related. “Understanding how animals are different helps us to understand how diverse those animals are, and understanding that diversity helps us to better conserve the world around us…the beautiful, unimaginable, abundant life.”

Listen to an interview with Jana Thoma (mp3)

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