Cool Florida Chemists

Photos from UAB in Antarctica group on Flickr, related to this post
By Maggie
Posted on 05/16/10

Throughout this season's writings, we UAB Blazers have casually dropped the names Alan and Jason.  Perhaps we have embellished their reference with the descriptor "our USF colleague". It was decided that we should dedicate not one entry but two entries about our Florida-based team members. Kate will follow my writings with more detailed look at the chemistry this cool pair is pursuing.  Her entry will serve as part of her PhD qualifying written exam ;-)

    Allow me to introduce Texas born, bred and schooled Alan Maschek.  Now residing in Tampa, Florida where in the USF lab of Bill Baker he is nearing completion of his PhD in chemistry.  This is his third season ‘on the ice'.

    Alan did not dive his first season but in his subsequent years has become quite the dive animal.  He is a very expressive person and as such I must say he is a gifted communicator underwater.  He is also often better at finding and identifying sponges underwater than us biologists.  On one dive, I motioned him over to a sponge I thought might be one we needed to collect.  He swam over, inspected it briefly, looked at me in the eye while shaking his head no and through his regulator clearly announced "too mushy".  The sponge we were looking for had similar appearance but much firmer tissue.  Not only can Alan talk clearly underwater, I will testify that I have heard him singing underwater! 

    A talented musician above water too Alan picks guitar.  The Palmer band that Ruth and Kate debuted with earlier in the season lost several string players when the summer crew sailed north.  Alan stepped in the fill in the riff rift.  I look forward to another Open Microphone Night with Alan joining songbird Ruth and saxxy Kate.

    Devotees of a certain long running tv series will automatically ‘friend' Alan after seeing his birthday cake, pictured on the side panel.  Notice the Dharma symbol as a cake topper.  This hardcore fan of the series Lost frequently hosts showings of the latest episode over in the lounge.  Last week was the start of Alan's 33rd episode as the cake banner announced.

    It's Superchemist!  Alan's projects include investigating the exact chemistry of compounds of interest from three particular organisms.  One is a red alga with the scientific name Gigartina skottsbergi.  At the right is an image of Alan and Kate holding an especially huge specimen of this alga.  Alan joked about it being a superman cape!  As a phycologist, or seaweed specialist, Kate will tell you more about this study. 

    The other two organisms Alan focuses his chemistry insight on are the cactus sponge Dendrilla membranosa and a certain nudibranch - a shell-less mollusk and relative of snails, clams, etc.  The name of the latter is Austrodoris kerguelenensis.  Both of these critters served as birthday mementos.  The background of his birthday card was an image of this sponge.  I'll let Kate tell you about the gift which she handcrafted.....

   Another creative outlet of Alan's is making videos.  He has a long list of fun shorts to view on www.youtube.com/alantakestrips.  Check them out - this cool chemist is a fine videographer!

   Lately though, it is Alan's USF mate Jason Cuce who has been taking trips.  Jason, a native Floridian and PhD student of Bill Baker's, has been sailing away on the Laurence M. Gould for multi-day fishing trips.  The other science group on station works on fish and they have been making short trips to trawl deep waters for the fish needed for their work.  The  trawls, which scrape the bottom of the ocean  for a short time, collect the sought after bottom dwelling fish plus bycatch goodies like sea stars, urchins, sponges, nudibranchs and tunicates.  Some of the very same organisms we collect by scuba but also a lot of new and different material. 

    Jason came back from his second fishing cruise with many of Alan's nudibranchs plus some cool deep sea amphipods and isopods for me.  At right Jason shows off treasures he saved for me.  Ironically, in my last Passion for Pod entry I wrote about Paraceradocus miersii, the largest amphipod we see here.  Jason picked out of specimens of that very species from the bycatch which are easily twice as big! 

    Additionally, Jason brought several very large serolid isopods.  Though a different species that the teeny I wrote of the deep sea species are much bigger than the biggest we see in shallow water.  These are two good examples of the gigantism phenomenon that has been observed amongst organisms living in the very deep, cold waters of the world's oceans.

    When not a salty sailor, Jason, like Alan is delving into the chemistry of a particular Palmer benthic organism.  He is sleuthing the chemical details of a tunicate or sea squirt with the latin name Synoicum adareanum.  Previous USF work on this apparently simple orange blob of tissue has led to isolating unique compounds which the Baker lab officially termed Palmerolides (in honor of Palmer Station). 

    All compounds derived from organisms, natural products in short, are sent to various government agencies, like the National Cancer Institute, for screening against all sorts of diseases.  One of the palmerolides ranked very high in efficacy against human skin cancer or melanoma.  Trials with this compound on mice with melanoma are now underway in several labs around the country but it will be many years (if ever) before human trials might be conducted. 

    Jason's particular angle on this natural product is pursuing whether other compounds produced by Synoicum adareanum can affect crustaceans (shrimp, crabs, amphipods).  The chemical structures of these natural products from the tunicate are very similar to compounds in crustaceans which are involved in the molting, or shedding of the exoskeleton.  So I have had the pleasure of tutoring Jason about amphipods and helping him with his experiments.  His deep sea booty suggests to me that has caught pod fever! 

    When not in the lab or out on deck, Jason can be found underwater.  At home in Florida he likes to cave and cavern dive. He was my buddy on a recent shore dive when we collected a very big alga for use in our video outreach teleconference that Chuck wrote about.   He is an absolute trivia wizard and is ‘The Man' to have on your team for Trivial Pursuit - heck he is the team!  He is also a regular participant of the pre-morning meeting brain trust puzzling through the New York Times crossword.

   Tomorrow morning Jason sails away again.  This time he will fish waters south of Palmer Station.  This cool chemist is one true southerner.

 

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