Grad Student Explores Sea Star Wasting Disease

A mysterious disease has infiltrated the waters of the West Coast, leaving hundreds of once-healthy sea star colonies dead in its wake. For several years, researchers worked tirelessly to identify the cause, to no avail.

WWU graduate school alumna Chelsea Hutchinson, native of the Tri-Cities, may have gotten us one step closer to understanding the epidemic. Hutchinson recently defended her thesis regarding a potential link between the disease and bacteria.  

During her time as a graduate student, Hutchinson worked alongside Associate Professor of Biology Marion Broadhagen and Professor of Biology Ben Miner as she conducted her research, both in the field and the lab.

WT: How did your involvement in this research project begin?

“I had actually attended WWU as an undergraduate and had been living in Bellingham working in a local laboratory doing quality control and research and development work. I had always planned on getting my master's degree in Biology or a PhD in order to pursue a career in biological research, so it was just a question of where. Because I was in Bellingham, I was curious if there was research at WWU that interested me, so I got in touch with a few of the professors that I knew to see what types of research they were doing.

I met with Marion Brodhagen and while she had multiple very interesting projects in the works, but I was instantly excited when she said that she and Ben Miner had begun a collaboration to explore a potential link between bacteria and sea star wasting disease (SSWD). I knew a little but about it from what I had read in the paper, but once I started reading up on it more, I was hooked on the project.

I also have a deep appreciation for projects that are inherently interdisciplinary and use a variety of tools to answer a question, so the project appealed to me from this aspect as well. I was accepted to WWU and began to work on this research project in Marion's lab while collaborating with Ben.”

WT: Congratulations on your recent thesis defense. What was the process like?

“It is an interesting process because the formulation of the research proposal (what you plan to do for your research and what scientific questions that you intend to answer) seems to take forever, and while you are writing it, your research questions and the methods that you plan on using to answer these questions are constantly changing.

In this time you are also serving as a TA and taking courses, so the first 6 months-1 year is incredibly hectic. Then the actual accumulation of data happens, which has many of its own challenges.

Finally, after months of writing the thesis, you send in a draft of the thesis to your committee (the people that have been guiding you through the whole process) that has gone through many revisions with the help of your primary advisor.

You set a pre-defense meeting where your committee tells you if your thesis and the work that you have been doing is good enough to defend or if serious changes need to be made, or even if you have to re-collect data. Then a defense date is set that involves a public presentation of the research, which is followed by 1-3 hours of questioning by the committee in your background knowledge of the project. If they are satisfied that your work and knowledge is sufficient for deserving a master's degree, then you pass the defense.

My personal experience was that the defense itself felt like the smallest portion of the whole process even though it is the culmination of years of work. I really enjoyed the public presentation and the interesting questions that came with it. I was initially most nervous for the subsequent questioning by my committee, but it turned out to be challenging yet fair process.”

WT: What is next for you and your research?

“While I was at WWU, we learned so much fundamental information regarding bacteria and SSWD that had been largely ignored by the scientific community, all while working on a very small budget. But from that early research, we hope to use what we learned to inform and encourage further research in this area.

 I am specifically very excited that all of the undergraduate researchers who worked on this project are still at WWU, and they hopefully continue to have the opportunity to explore many aspects of SSWD.

While there is a part of me that wished that I could carry on the SSWD research, I think it was time for me to move on and try something new. I am currently a research associate at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the Biological Sciences Division within the Proteomics group, where I use my background in cellular and molecular biology to address big questions regarding human health. I am looking forward to seeing what future research projects that I get to play a part in.”