USF researcher named 'Brilliant Ten'

By Roberto Roldan, NEWS EDITOR
On September 24, 2013

The daughter of two scientists, Mya Breitbart had Popular Science magazine as a staple in her household.

Last week, when Popular Science magazine published its annual “Brilliant Ten” series, highlighting who they believe to be the top 10 young researchers in North America, Breitbart was on the list, featured for her work in microbiology and oceanography.

Looking at the scientists and researchers featured in the magazine as a child, Breitbart said she never imagined she would receive the same honor for her own work.

“Even when I was a kid, and didn’t know much about science. I could pick (Popular Science) up and find out about all these cool things going on in the world,” she said. “It’s exciting for me to think now kids are looking at the magazine and getting interested in biology and science based on seeing me and my work.”

Growing up, Breitbart took field trips with her local Girl Scout troop to explore the environment and nature.

She remembers boarding research vessels and helping with nesting projects in South Carolina.

Now an associate professor and researcher at USF St. Petersburg’s marine sciences department, Breitbart said these field trips are what began her fixation with oceanography and biology.

“These experiences were my first real glimpse into what marine biology was and what marine biologists do and I liked it,” Breitbart said.

Every year, the editors of Popular Science speak with researchers and people in the field about their current projects and the projects of their peers in order to get an idea of who is doing the “ground-breaking” work.

Martha Harbison, a senior editor at Popular Science, said the magazine wants to find out who is doing research that will radically change the path of research and work to come.

“There are a lot of people doing really cool research, but what we look for in the vetting process is to find people who are changing the way their colleges will be doing things in the future,” Harbison said. “That’s the level we want to see. We like evolutionary, but we are looking for revolutionary.”

Breitbart was featured for her work in genome mapping and virology in underwater environments.

Working with the graduate students and Ph.D. candidates she mentors, Breitbart said she is looking to fundamentally change the ways viral infections are detected and dealt with.

“Right now, lots of things have to die before we actually start looking for the virus,” Breitbart said. “What we are trying to do is turn that model on its head. We want to get an idea of what kind of viruses are present in the environment right now and then understand the baseline. Then we’ll be able to detect when something new enters the population pretty quickly.”

Breitbart’s current work involves mapping the genomes of large samples of ocean water in order to find out what viruses are present and what they are doing.

Rather than attempting to decipher the individual genomes of all the microorganisms inside the sample, as is the norm, Breitbart said her team works to extract all the genetic material present and sequence the genetic code of the entire sample simultaneously.

“It’s called metagenomics,” she said. “Everything has a genome, has DNA, so the meta in metagenomics is just, instead of going and looking at a single virus genome, what we are doing is looking at the total community of viruses present in a sample or ecosystem.”

Being a scientist working in the state of Florida adds even more significance to her work, Breitbart said.

“In Florida, our economy is really based on tourism and beaches are really important things in the state,” she said. “That’s one area my work can be applied to.”

During tourist season, beaches must be monitored daily for fecal contamination and sewage run-off. These tests typically take a day to complete, leaving time for individuals to get sick.

Breitbart recently received a grant to apply her research to fecal contamination testing that she hopes will allow state officials to know the day of testing, whether or not the water is safe to swim in.12

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