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Virginia Weis in front of shrubbery

Coral cell biologist named 2019 Distinguished Professor

By Srila Nayak
Virginia Weis, Professor of Integrative Biology

Coral cell biologist Virginia Weis’s career has traveled the arc from foundational cell biology research to a dogged quest for solutions to prevent the destruction of corals and ensure their preservation in the future. For more than two decades, her research has focused on the symbiotic association between corals and the algae they harbor within their cells, and the role of this mutualistic relationship in the foundation and sustenance of healthy coral reef ecosystems. An internationally recognized leader in coral symbiosis cell biology and the Head of the Department of Integrative Biology, Weis was named a 2019 Distinguished Professor at Oregon State University.

Distinguished Professorship is the highest academic honor the university can bestow on a faculty member. Among other accomplishments, the award recognizes her significant contributions to enhancing the understanding of the effects of climate change and environmental stress on the coral immune response and coral bleaching.

Weis joins chemistry Professor Mas Subramanian and ocean ecology Professor Clare Reimers who were also chosen as 2019 Distinguished Professors for their extraordinary scholarship, as well as their outstanding teaching and mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students. The award also acknowledges their contributions to OSU’s land grant mission through their service, outreach, and engagement. The College of Science has the most distinguished professors at OSU at 22.

“It is a huge honor. It is a great feeling to know that I am being recognized for working hard at OSU all these years, teaching students, and making an impact on my field,” Weis remarked.

She will present a distinguished lecture as a part of the Recognizing Excellence events on May 13 in the Memorial Union Horizon Room.

Taking action against coral bleaching

Coral reefs are in crisis around the world, threatened by ocean warming, which causes corals to expel algae and turn white in a process called coral bleaching. Photosynthetic algae are responsible for the beautiful colors of corals and also for providing food to the coral hosts in exchange for protection and nutrients. Coral bleaching, which results from the breakdown of this symbiotic relationship, can cause 100 percent coral mortality and reef destruction.

In her laboratory, Weis and her graduate students closely examine the molecular partnership between corals and algae, their communication and signaling patterns that regulate the symbiosis, and how dysbiosis or a breakdown in partnership results under conditions of stress induced by heat and environmental pollution. Weis’s research on coral-algae symbiosis and its effect on the coral immune system is supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) award.

“It is very interesting that the primary cause of coral bleaching and reef destruction is global warming, which is a big-scale problem. But the effect occurs at a micro-scale, cell biology level that results in the whole ecosystem breaking down. My research group is invested in understanding how that breakdown occurs and the reasons for it,” Weis said.

In addition to her research on the molecular and cellular conversations between symbiotic partners, Weis is investigating methods to create a more resilient coral through gene editing techniques. “Proposing radical genetic changes as a solution may sound frightening to some. But we are going to lose corals in 20 years if we don’t try something new.”

Weis’s research accomplishments garnered her the prestigious NSF EDGE grant in 2017. In fact, she and her collaborators were the first cohort of NSF’s EDGE awardees. EDGE stands for Enabling Discovery through Genomic Tools. The NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate administers the program, which funds projects that seek to develop new tools and teach other researchers how to use them.

“I am working hard to help bring leadership and consensus to the challenge of building coral repositories. This is so that when humans get their act together and we bring the temperature back down on the planet, then we could scale the reproduction of corals and try to build reefs up again.”

Weis’s research is supported by a $2 million NSF EDGE award. She leads a team of coral biologists, cell biologists and geneticists from Stanford, the Carnegie Institution and Florida International University. The team studies a small sea anemone called Aiptasia as a proxy for corals. It engages in a symbiosis with algae just like corals and can survive better than corals in a lab. Corals are slow-growing in the lab and difficult to obtain because of their endangered status in many locations. The research focuses on developing genomic and gene editing techniques in both partners to be able to test hypotheses about the involvement of specific genes in coral health and stress.

sea anemone Aiptasia sitting on rock
Image of the model sea anemone Aiptasia. Brown hue is millions of resident symbiotic dinoflagellates. Photo by Jack Koch.

Weis and her team are pushing the frontiers of genome science by uncovering the genetic basis of coral biology. They are investigating gene editing techniques that could alter the molecular cellular make-up of the symbionts of host animals. The long-term goal would be to provide the tools for engineering corals that are more resilient to bleaching. “Aiptasia is a little workhorse for understanding how coral symbiosis works, and we are developing tools as a group to push the field forward,” Weis observed.

As a second pathway to coral conservation, Weis is attempting to build a cutting-edge enterprise that develops tools for cryo-preservation and for creating repositories of eggs and sperm of corals to preserve their genetic diversity and save them from possible extinction.

“I am working hard to help bring leadership and consensus to the challenge of building coral repositories. This is so that when human get their act together and we bring the temperature back down on the planet, then we could scale the reproduction of corals and try to build reefs up again,” Weis explained.

“You lose sight of this, but my sabbatical reconnected me with just the basic love of discovery and just being excited about learning things that nobody else knows or making contributions about things that are new.”

Weis chaired and organized the 9thInternational Symbiosis Society Congress at OSU in July 2018, which brought together 250 symbiosis scientists from up to 20 nations. The ISS Congress is the primary international meeting focusing on symbioses, including complex interactions between hosts and their microbiomes and the ecological and socio-economic importance of symbioses.

Her role in generating discoveries has taken her beyond OSU. In 2018, Weis spent her sabbatical at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and the University of Florida’s marine lab in St. Augustine, Florida. With the help of a grant from the New Zealand government, Weis and a colleague concentrated on strains of symbiotic algae that are less symbiotic in host animals but more resilient to temperature stress. They examined their potential role in combatting stress from global warming.

In Florida in the lab of her former Ph.D. student Christine Schnitzler, Weis conducted research on techniques to generate populations of single anemone cells including those still containing algae for use in single cell studies. Weis is delighted to bring back the technique to her lab at OSU where her students will take it up for advanced research.

Now Weis is back to balancing several roles as an administrator, scientist and teacher.

“You lose sight of this, but my sabbatical reconnected me with just the basic love of discovery and just being excited about learning things that nobody else knows or making contributions about things that are new,” Weis observed.

Weis has published nearly 100 peer-review articles. She has won the top accolades at the College of Science, which include the Thomas Sugihara Young Faculty Researcher Award, the Milton Harris Award in Basic Research and the Frederick Horne Award for excellence in teaching science.

Teacher and “science hero”

An exceptionally talented and dedicated teacher, Weis has served as an advisor to 15 Ph.D. students and 11 postdoctoral fellows and hosted 70 undergraduate students in her lab. Four doctoral students and a postdoctoral researcher are currently members of the Weis lab. Students from top undergraduate programs in the country come to OSU to pursue doctoral studies with Weis, attracted by her lab’s reputation as one of the few places to study the molecular and cellular aspects of marine biology.

“This is the age of life sciences. It is a big data-driven discipline now. Genomics has changed everything across biology — from ecology to cell biology. At the same time, job opportunities aren’t what they used to be.”

For a few decades, Weis taught undergraduate classes on invertebrate biology, marine physiology and symbiosis. Despite a slew of administrative duties as the head of integrative biology, she still teaches an undergraduate class on symbiosis.

“I love teaching. There are many demands on my time so I feel torn about it. But in the moment, when I’m actually engaged with students and interacting with them, I love it,” Weis said. “I am looking forward to the day when I am not department head anymore, so that I can have more time with students and not feel like I am being pulled away from these interactions.”

The emphasis on innovative student learning and outstanding academic preparation in the Department of Integrative Biology owes much to Weis’s vision. While biological sciences may have undergone a complete transformation in the information era, Weis believes the importance of the field remains undiluted and that biology students need to arm themselves with diverse skills to make the most of opportunities.

“This is the age of life sciences. It is a big data-driven discipline now. Genomics has changed everything across biology — from ecology to cell biology. At the same time, job opportunities aren’t what they used to be,” Weis said. “And so my advice to all my students is you need to foster some computational, quantitative and/or modeling skills because they enhance your brand, increase your career choices and are extremely important in being successful.”

According to Weis, the students in her laboratory have readily seized on opportunities to learn computational and data analysis methods, and have pleasantly surprised her with their ability to master new fields of knowledge.

“From the moment I met Virginia, she treated me more as a colleague than a student. This set the tone for our relationship and I am forever grateful.”

“I tell my students that by the time they leave my lab they should know more than I do. And they do. They come in ready to learn and they leave schooling me in genomic-related research and statistical design. It is awesome,” Weis exulted.

Her undergraduate and graduate students have gone on to achieve tremendous success as physicians, scientists, academics and government scientists, and they have been emailing Weis to congratulate her on her newest award.

“A former undergraduate student just wrote to me. He said his time in the Weis lab learning empirical science and the scientific method have proven very valuable to him in medical school,” shared Weis.

Weis is commended by her Ph.D. students for her exceptional abilities as a scientist and as a mentor. Former graduate student Schnitzler (Ph.D. ’10) calls her a “science hero.”

“From the moment I met Virginia, she treated me more as a colleague than a student. This set the tone for our relationship and I am forever grateful. Virginia is a wonderful mentor and educator, and she continues to mentor me to this day. Her impact on my career has been nothing less than monumental,” said Schnitzler, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Florida.

Science for life

Science, Weis points out, was an unlikely passion. “There was no science in my family.” She grew up in Delaware, a small college town in central Ohio where her father was an English professor at Ohio Wesleyan University and her mother was a homemaker.

Weis doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t drawn to science. She always loved the natural world and roaming in the woods, and her parents encouraged her interests. Her grandfather, father and brother had all graduated from Yale and that’s where she headed to study biology in 1980, just a little over a decade after Yale threw opens its doors to female undergraduates for the first time in 1969.

Weis discovered cell biology as an undergraduate student at Yale. She learned to perform electron microscopy of cnidarian larvae related to corals in her first cell biology class. “I was hooked. I could not get the images out of my mind and cell biology was all I wanted to do,” Weis recalled.

She looked for opportunities in labs that were studying cnidarians, including corals, and that took her to Leonard Muscatine’s (christened “the grandfather of coral symbiosis”) laboratory in UCLA for her graduate studies. After two post-doctoral appointments at the University of Southern California and Stanford University, Weis arrived at OSU as an assistant professor in 1996. She was appointed the Head of Integrative Biology in 2011.

Weis credits OSU and Corvallis for providing the best possible environment for research and a fulfilling life. “OSU is fantastic. I love living in Corvallis, and I raised my two children here. It has formed me personally,” said Weis. “I have found that one can do really high-class research here. You have the opportunity to interact with excellent undergraduate students — our department is lucky to be able to attract some of the best students at the university. I have had fantastic graduate students. While my research program is very outward looking, I have lots of colleagues that I both interact and collaborate with regularly.”

Weis’s career is exemplified by scientific excellence, creativity and brilliant academic leadership. She shares her inspiring perspective on having a successful career as a scientist and an academic.

“I tell my students to make a to-do list. We tend to start with the small stuff and end with the big goal to create global peace or something like that,” Weis said. “You need to flip the list. Do the big stuff first because that is what really, really matters.”