Brooke Weigel is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology. Her research aims to characterize the symbiosis between giant canopy-forming kelp and the millions of tiny bacteria that live on their surfaces. Brooke is determining the identity and functional role of symbiotic bacteria associated with the "bull kelp" Nereocystis luetkeana, which forms extensive underwater forests along the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada. Brooke's research has shown that there are up to 25 million bacteria living on each square centimeter of kelp! Microbial metabolisms may contribute significantly to carbon and nitrogen cycling associated with kelp, which has fueled her desire to characterize the functional importance of this symbiosis. Brooke's research has been funded by the Phycological Society of America, National Geographic, and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology.
Each summer, Brooke spends three months in the field on the outer coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, and she travels to a small remote island (Tatoosh Island) with University of Chicago professors Cathy Pfister and Tim Wootton to conduct field experiments. Tatoosh Island is an ideal location for my research, because it has extremely biodiverse rocky intertidal and kelp forest ecosystems, and the island has been the focus of a number of historic ecological studies since the 1960s. Being at the University of Chicago has given her excellent access to marine biology field stations, including the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole. In addition to working on kelp, Brooke is also using the unique evisceration and regeneration capacity of sea cucumbers (holothurians) as a novel system to study colonization and succession of the gut microbiome. While Chicago is not coastal, being a graduate student in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology has provided Brooke with amazing opportunities to conduct field and lab research in marine ecosystems.