Journey into Midnight: Light and Life Below the Twilight Zone

Meet the Explorers

Heather Bracken-Grissom

Heather Bracken-Grissom, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor - Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University-Biscayne Bay Campus

Heather Bracken-Grissom is an Assistant Professor at Florida International University in the Marine Sciences Program, where she has a molecular evolution research lab  and teaches Invertebrate Zoology and Genetics. Heather is interested in the evolution of marine invertebrates with an emphasis on decapod crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, and shrimp). This subject allows her to address issues related to their biodiversity, genetics, ecology, biogeography, development, and conservation. Much of her work has been conducted in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, western Atlantic, and eastern Pacific Ocean, where she has organized and participated in several major research expeditions. Her current role in the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research grant will be to use molecular techniques to study the visual systems of deep-sea crustaceans. Specifically, she is interested in the genetics behind how organisms can detect light in the deep sea. Her interest in crustaceans blossomed early during her undergraduate years at the University of California, Santa Barbara and through her graduate (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and postdoctoral studies (Brigham Young University).

Alexander Davis

Alexander Davis

Graduate Student – Duke University

Alexander is a graduate student at Duke University working with Dr. Sönke Johnsen. He holds a B.S. in Biology from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. For his Ph.D., he is studying bioluminescence, sexual dimorphism, and ultra-black coloration in deep-sea dragonfish, and is particularly interested in how these traits facilitate the success of certain lineages in the deep sea. He will be assisting with spectral measurements of bioluminescence and skin reflectance, and collecting tissue samples for his dissertation research.

Danté Fenolio, Ph.D.

Danté Fenolio, Ph.D.

Vice President, Center for Conservation & Research - San Antonio Zoo

With a combined undergraduate degree in both Biology and Environmental Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz, Fenolio continued on to earn a Master’s degree in Zoology from the University of Oklahoma, where he examined the ecology of Grotto Salamanders, Eurycea spelaea. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Miami (Florida) involving amphibian conservation, ecology, and taxonomy. Fenolio was hired by the San Antonio Zoo to develop a new Department of Conservation and Research for the institution in 2013. Active projects now span the globe ranging from deep-sea work in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico to field projects in Japan and China as well as in Chile and Peru.

Dr. Fenolio's research interests involve the ecology of animals living in challenging environments like subterranean ecosystems, forest canopies, or the deep-ocean realm. For example, in 2018, Dr. Fenolio was named Director of Research for the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies (ACTS). Using the associated ACTS canopy walkway in Amazonian Peru, he is conducting research on the amphibians and reptiles inhabiting the treetops of a neotropical wet forest. He regularly conducts surveys of caves for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, documenting imperiled and endangered species and monitoring their populations. His field time is diverse ranging from work with colleagues in Central Brazil - performing bioinventories of areas involved with hydroelectric power plant projects – to over 20 research cruises at sea examining deep sea biodiversity.

Tamara Frank

Tamara Frank, Ph.D.

Professor - Nova Southeastern University

Tamara received her Ph.D. degree in Aquatic Biology from University of California, Santa Barbara, working on the visual ecology of deep-sea crustaceans. She completed post-doctoral fellowships in neurophysiology at the University of Connecticut Medical School and Hatfield Marine Science Center in Oregon, before returning to the deep-sea world on a post-doctoral fellowship at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in 1992. Discovering that Florida is the only state in the continental U.S. that met her temperature requirements, she has lived in Florida ever since. Much of her research has been on the visual ecology of deep-sea animals, studying adaptations to both downwelling light and bioluminescence. Her work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the NOAA National Undersea Research Program and the NOAA Ocean Exploration program. She has been chief scientist on 65 research cruises, and participated on 40 more as a lucky hitchhiker, conducting work in the Gulf of Maine, the Gulf of Maine, the Indian Ocean and off the coasts of Florida, Hawaii, California, the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, Cuba, Costa Rica, Cabo Verde, and Samoa. In addition to her research, she mentors graduate students and teaches Human Anatomy and Physiology to undergraduates, and marine physiology and deep-sea biology to graduates.

Sönke Johnsen, Ph.D.

Sönke Johnsen, Ph.D.

Professor of Biology - Duke University

Originally trained in math and art, Sönke Johnsen has studied vision, camouflage, signaling, bioluminescence, and ocean optics for the last 30 years. He is particularly interested in vision and camouflage in the open ocean, but has also worked on coastal and land-based species, magnetic orientation, vision at night, and human cataracts. His field work usually involves either open-ocean research cruises that use SCUBA and deep-sea submersibles or extended stays at coral reef stations.In addition to exploring the optical and visual tricks that animals perform, Dr. Johnsen is interested in improving communication between biologists and physicists and between scientists and artists. Outreach is a strong focus and his research has been presented in numerousmagazines, newspapers, and television shows, including Finding Nemo, The Magic Treehouse, and the poetry of John Updike. He has also written two books, The Optics of Life and Visual Ecology, and is starting a new one on life in the open ocean with the working title, The Great Wide Open. In his spare time, he is an avid nature photographer and amateur farmer.

Heather Judkins

Heather Judkins, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences - University of South Florida St. Petersburg

Heather is an assistant professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg teaching marine-biology related courses as well as conducting research in her Invertebrate Lab. Her favorite invertebrate group to work with are the cephalopods-squid, octopus and their relatives as she completed her doctoral work examining biogeography and biodiversity patterns of these animals in the Wider Caribbean in 2009 from the USF College of Marine Science. Since that time, she has been working with the deep-sea cephalopods of the Gulf of Mexico, focusing on ecological interactions and taxonomy-related questions. She maintains an active research lab and has students working on various marine organisms-from pteropod and heteropod studies to Red Snapper and Pillar Coral projects. She has been a part of multiple at-sea research cruises from the eastern tropical and northern Pacific Ocean to the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Megan McCall

Megan O. McCall, Ph.D.

STEAM Coordinator - Bayside Academy

Megan has been the STEAM Coordinator since 2016 at Bayside Academy in Daphne, Alabama and taught secondary science for 14 years prior. She is passionate about teaching and connecting students with real world science and has worked with scientists around the world (including Antarctica, the Arctic, New Zealand and the Galapagos) to accomplish this. In 2017, she completed her Ph.D. in Instructional Design and Development from the University of South Alabama. Her Master’s degree is in Secondary Science Education and her B.S. in Environmental Science from the School of Engineering at Auburn University. Dr. McCall has been recognized with several prestigious teaching awards such as the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching and a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. On the 2019 Gulf of Mexico Expedition, she is serving as the Web Coordinator for Education and Outreach.

Ruchao Qian

Ruchao Qian

Graduate Student – Nova Southeastern University

Ruchao is a graduate student at Nova Southeastern University working with Dr. Tamara Frank. He holds a B.S. in Biology from Indiana University Bloomington. For his Master’s program, he is studying the visual physiology of several marine crustaceans. He is trying to compare various visual characteristics between the eyes of fast-moving predatory crabs and slow-moving herbivorous crabs. He will be using the methods of electrophysiology, histology, and TEM for his experiment.

Nathan J. Robinson

Nathan J. Robinson

Director – Cape Eleuthera Institute

Nathan is the Director the Cape Eleuthera Institute in The Bahamas. He holds a MMarBiol in Marine Biology from the University of Southampton, U.K and a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Purdue University, U.S.A. Nathan’s primary research interests are in the use of emerging technologies to reveal the secret lives of marine megafauna. He will be assisting Dr. Edith Widder with the deployment of a sophisticated deep-sea camera, called the “MEDUSA”. The MEDUSA comes equipped with a low-light camera and an LED eJelly lure, which makes this piece of technology perfect for gaining footage of deep-sea predators under natural conditions.

Dr. Tracey T. Sutton

Tracey T. Sutton, Ph.D.

Professor, Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences - Nova Southeastern University

Dr. Sutton is a Professor in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences at Nova Southeastern University (Dania Beach, FL). His lab at the Guy Harvey Oceanographic Center specializes in oceanic ecology, with emphasis on community structure, food web modelling, biophysical coupling, biogeography and taxonomy. He is also interested in all aspects of fish biology and ecology. He currently leads the DEEPEND consortium (Deep Pelagic Nekton Dynamics of the Gulf of Mexico; ). This 80-member, 22-institution consortium is researching the structure of the deep Gulf water column, and how that structure is or may have been affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Before DEEPEND he was the lead PI of the NOAA-supported Offshore Nekton Sampling and Analysis Program (ONSAP), and co-led the Pelagic Nekton Group of the Census of Marine Life project MAR-ECO. He was a founding member and Steering Committee member of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, a co-PI in the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative, and is currently an invited Expert Panel Member of the United Nations World Ocean Assessment II. Dr. Sutton received his Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography from the University of South Florida College of Marine Science and was a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Dr. Lorian Schweikert

Lorian Schweikert, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow – Florida International University

Lorian is one of four Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellows at Florida International University and works in the lab of Dr. Heather Bracken-Grissom. She holds a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Tampa and a Ph.D in Biology from Florida Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on sensory neuroethology, using integrative approaches to study visual system specialization in the marine world. In a current project, Lori is studying the interplay between camouflage and sexual signaling in deep-sea bioluminescence. She will assess eye size and bioluminescent organ arrangement in deep-sea shrimp, and collect specimens for her research.

Edie Widder

Edith Widder, Ph.D.

CEO and Senior Scientist - Ocean Research & Conservation Association

Dr. Edie Widder is a MacArthur Fellow, a deep-sea explorer, and an ocean conservationist. A specialist in bioluminescence, she has been a leader in developing new ways to explore the deep sea. Her innovations have produced footage of rare sharks, squid, jellyfish, and crustaceans, as well as led to the first recordings of the giant squid, Architeuthis, in its natural habitat. In order to help save and protect the ocean she loves, in 2005 Edie helped found the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, also known as ORCA. ORCA is the world’s first technology focused, marine conservation, not-for-profit, which is using leading-edge science to find pollution and stop it at its source. ORCA’s tagline, which is Mapping Pollution, Finding Solutions, describes a results-driven approach to meeting some of the greatest challenges our ocean planet is currently facing.