Marine Ecosystem Health

Coral Reef & Molecular Ecology

Project Team


Project Lead - Joshua D. Voss, Ph.D.

Assistant Research Professor

Lab site


Dr. Voss’s primary areas of interest include shallow and mesophotic coral reef ecology, coral health and disease, molecular ecology, and marine conservation and management. Through Harbor Branch’s Robertson Coral Reef Program and the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Exploration, Research, and Technology, he works to discover, characterize, and protect coral reefs ecosystems. He has completed over 1000 scientific dive and led more than 30 scientific expeditions primarily in the Bahamas, Florida Keys, Dry Tortugas, and Gulf of Mexico with additional investigations in Panama, Belize, Curacao, Bonaire, Dominica, USVI, and St. Eustatius. Dr. Voss teaches undergraduate courses in the Harbor Branch Semester by the Sea Program, graduate courses in the FAU Department of Biology, and molecular workshops for high school students. He also serves on various committees including the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council Coral Advisory Panel, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Technical Advisory Committee, and FAU’s Diving and Boating Safety Committee. After growing up on the beaches of central Florida, Voss attended Elon University in North Carolina and completed a B.S. in biology along with minors in philosophy and chemistry. He earned his Ph.D. in biological sciences at Florida International University in Miami, and was a member of the marine science faculty at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg before accepting his current position at Harbor Branch.




Amanda Alker


Amanda Alker is is a recent graduate (May 2015) from Florida Atlantic University’s Honors College with a concentration in Marine Biology. She participated in FAU’s Semester by the Sea program in collaboration with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in the spring of 2013. Following the Semester by the Sea program, she participated in the Harbor Branch summer intern program (2013) under Dr. Voss, studying bacterial communities in coral mucus. After her Harbor Branch internship, was awarded a Research Experience for Undergraduates internship (Fall 2013) funded by NSF at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences . There, she studied antibiotic resistance in bacteria near sewage outfalls in Bermuda, under Rachel Parsons and Shervon de Leon. She is currently working in the Voss Lab as a laboratory assistant, and is searching for PhD programs for the fall of 2016. Her research interests include: marine molecular ecology, coral reef ecology, environmental health, and lagoon and estuarine water systems. When not in the lab, Amanda enjoys traveling, scuba, surfing, running, and yoga.


Graduate Students


Danielle Dodge


Danielle is a Masters student who joined the lab in August 2015 and is doing research on gene expression in relation to the St. Lucie Reef Project. She is a recent graduate of the University of Delaware with a degree in Environmental Science and a concentration in Marine Science. Her interest in coral reef ecosystems sparked during participation in a field methods research program on Little Cayman Island where she became an AAUS Scientific Diver, NAUI Rescue Diver and participated in coral abundance and diversity research. Working as a research assistant in an Algal Physiology research group during her undergraduate, Dani investigated the genetic effects of thermal stress and ocean acidification on coral algal symbioses. She recently spent her summer in Key West teaching marine education with Reef Relief , a non-profit membership organization aimed to protect and improve coral reef ecosystems.


Jennifer Polinski


Jennifer Polinski joined the lab as a Masters student in August of 2014. Her thesis research focuses on the coral-Symbiodinium symbiosis in mesophotic coral reefs (>30m) in the Gulf of Mexico . For her thesis, Jennifer will characterize the zooxanthellae assemblages found in Montastraea cavernosa through classical measures of abundance and pigment content as well as through genetic identification using next generation sequencing. In additional to characterizing these assemblages, she will compare them to symbiont assemblages from neighboring shallow reef ecosystems. Prior to joining the graduate program, she volunteered in the lab during the summer of 2013 and worked as an intern during the summer of 2014, doing research in conjunction with the St. Lucie Reef Project . In May of 2014, she completed her B.A. in Biology and Mathematics at Albion College  in Albion, Michigan. After completing her degree at HBOI, she intends to pursue a Ph.D. and a career in research and academia.


Alycia Shatters


Alycia Shatters is a Masters student who joined the lab in January of 2014. She completed her B.A. in Biology at New College of Florida, where she worked on creating a protocol to isolate high quality DNA from recalcitrant tissues such as R. mangle. Afterward she spent two years with the Peace Corps spreading awareness of environmental conservation to the youth living in the Amazon Rainforest. As part of her Master’s thesis research, she helped design an ex-situ system in which environmental variables can be controlled in order to test the effects of discharge water from Lake Okeechobee and manmade canals in South Florida on corals and their symbionts.


Michael Studivan


Mike is a Ph.D. candidate who joined the lab in August of 2012. His dissertation research examines the ecology and genetic connectivity of mesophotic coral reefs (>30m) and the interaction of environment and genotype on coral morphological adaptation to depth. Mesophotic reefs have been under recent research attention with their increasing discovery near shallow reefs, in part due to their benefits as fish habitats. His dissertation research will address key questions regarding mesophotic reefs using Montastraea cavernosa from the Gulf of Mexico (Flower Garden Banks and Pulley Ridge) and the Caribbean (Carrie Bow Cay, Belize). (1) How well are MCEs connected to shallow reefs? (2) How do shallow and mesophotic conspecifics differ in gene expression and corallite morphology? (3) Can corals adapt their morphology and gene expression to match changing environmental stimuli? Mike’s dissertation will test these questions using a combination of molecular techniques (microsatellites and RNASeq) and a reciprocal transplant experiment to assess connectivity, phenotypic plasticity, and gene expression responses of mesophotic corals. Prior to his graduate work at Harbor Branch, he completed his undergraduate degree at St. Mary’s College of Maryland with a senior thesis describing the effects of oil dispersant exposure on soft coral Xenia elongata bleaching (now published). He then worked at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory identifying Arctic benthic invertebrates for climate change and petroleum exploration research. He is a technical diver with certifications from GUE, AAUS, TDI, PADI, and PSI/PCI. He also has six years of video editing experience and has been producing outreach videos for the lab.

Undergraduate Students

Dr. Voss has mentored several Honors Undergraduate theses students. We are always looking for passionate and dedicated students to help with ongoing projects in the lab. Also, undergraduates looking to gain more research experience should look into the Harbor Branch Summer Intern Program .

Lab Alumni


Ana María González Angel


Ana is an international student from Colombia and was a Link Foundation summer intern with the Robertson Coral Reef Program under Dr. Sara Edge’s supervision in 2012 studying the effects of salinity, temperature and UV light on coral larvae from the FL Keys. She continued with this research project for her Master’s thesis. She is currently working towards her MSc in Marine Biology from Nova Southeastern University and hopes to graduate in 2013. Ana earned a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Universidad de los Andes in 2009. After graduating, she worked in a Government Agency called Colciencias on scientific policy matters associated with the National Sea Sciences and Technologies program. She is pursuing her PhD in Biology at Penn State working under Dr. Mónica Medina in marine genomics. Outside of school, Ana reads Spanish literature and is learning tribal style bellydancing.


Thomas Camacho


Thomas was an undergraduate lab assistant from Indian River State College who worked on the St. Lucie Reef project. As a biology major with a strong interest in genetics, doing research in Harbor Branch's genomic lab with Lisa Cohen and Sara Edge allowed him to gain experience in gene expression, RNA manipulation, and microarray technology. He also loves physics, going to the beach, and playing music. Thomas is currently pursuing his B.S. at the University of South Florida.


Lisa Cohen


Lisa was a biological scientist in the Robertson Coral Reef Program from 2010 to 2014 who worked primarily on molecular techniques in coral and zooxanthellae gene expression. Her broad research interests include bioinformatics, applying research methods towards the development of adaptive environmental resource management strategies, and working towards sustainable coastal development. Lisa earned a B.S. in Biochemistry with a minor in music from Eckerd College and a M.S. in Biology from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She also completed an M.S. in Environmental Resource Management from the Florida Institute of Technology while working at the Indian River Lagoon Aquatic Preserve. Lisa spent two years in the Peace Corps working on coral ecosystems and resource management in Micronesia. Lisa now works as a bioinformatics programmer at NYU Langone Medical Center's Genome Technology Center and plans to pursue a doctoral degree at NYU as well.


Ali Courtemanche


Ali was an undergraduate student from Florida Atlantic University and a two-time Semester by the Sea student assisting in Dr. Voss’s lab with a focus on molecular techniques to characterize coral's phenotypic responses to depth variation. Previously, she worked in Dr. Binninger’s lab targeting MRS protein deficiencies in Drosophila melanogaster. Ali has always had a passion for marine biology and has found her niche in genetics.


Elizabeth Fahsbender


Liz was a summer intern who assessed changes in the bacteria communities of coral mucus following exposure to oil, dispersant, and disease. Currently Liz is a graduate student in Dr. Mya Breitbart’s lab at the University of South Florida where she is using viral metagenomics to characterize emerging diseases.


Natalie Harrison


Natalie is a former intern and lab assistant in coral molecular ecology. She graduated from Duke University with a Bachelor's of Science in Biology and earned the Maggie Schneider Award in Marine Biology, awarded annually by the faculty of the Duke University Marine Laboratory. At Harbor Branch, she studied the gene expression of corals in transplant experiments, as well the effects of sunscreen exposure on the sea anemone Aiptasia pallida. She is completing degrees in law and marine science and policy at the University of Miami, and hopes to pursue a career in environmental law. Her paper discussing a new legal scheme for protecting Florida's coral reefs will be published in Volume 68 of The University of Miami Law Review.


Samantha Johnston


Samantha was an undergraduate student from the Honors College of Florida Atlantic University concentrating in marine biology with a minor in environmental sciences. She participated in the Semester by the Sea program at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and assistes Courtney Klepac with the St. Lucie Reef project, while also learning fundamental coral conservation techniques. Samantha hopes to continue her studies, focusing her efforts on the effects of both biotic and abiotic factors on coral reef health and the possible solutions that result in effective restoration.


Courtney Klepac


Courtney was a master’s student who joined the lab in 2012. Her thesis research focused on molecular characterization of the endosymbiotic dinoflagellates ( Symbiodinium ) in coastal coral hosts near to St. Lucie Inlet. This region is frequently subjected to estuarine discharge, and her goal was to provide baseline data to assess potential impacts from changing estuary management. After completing her B.S. in marine biology at Texas A & M University at Galveston, Courtney worked for a non-profit organization, Artist Boat, instructing coastal ecology and instilling stewardship through kayak tours, naturalist watercolor sessions, and habitat restoration. Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, she monitored pelagic plankton communities in the Gulf of Mexico as a biological technician with CardnoEntrix. Courtney is a small-town Texas girl with immense passion and love for the ocean. She’s an aspiring marine conservationist, avid surfer, and owns a small business that spreads the beauty of nature through hand-painted sneakers.


Miguel Martini


Miguel is an international student from Guatemala and a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic’s Honors College, majoring in marine biology with a business minor. Miguel attended Semester by the Sea in the spring of 2012. The following summer, he volunteered in Dr. Voss’s lab and started to work on his senior thesis, investigating the variable susceptibility of Montastraea faveolata to black band disease. Miguel is very interested in a future career in agribusiness and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Cornell University.


Daniel Rowan


As an NSF Undergraduate Research and Mentoring Program Fellow with Dr. Voss, Dan studied the effects of temperature and light on the pathogenesis of black band disease in corals. Dan also participated in the 2010 CIOERT FLOSEE Expedition and submitted a great daily blog. After graduating from FAU, Dan returned to Michigan and has held various positions, including biological restoration technician at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.


Ashley Sproles


Ashley is a former lab assistant in the Coral Reef and Molecular Ecology laboratory with Dr. Voss. She graduated from Florida Institute of Technology in 2012 with a double major in marine biology and conservation biology & ecology. Her research interests include coral-zooxanthellae symbiosis and the conservation of coral reef ecosystems. Throughout her undergraduate studies she has attended a summer field class on coral ecology held in Puerto Rico, attained her AAUS scientific diver certification, and completed internships at the Florida Aquarium and Harbor Branch. At Harbor Branch, she completed a project on the quantification of zooxanthellae and chlorophyll from Diploria clivosa and Montastraea cavernosa coral hosts at St. Lucie Reef, a location where nearby estuarine runoff may be affecting coral health. Outside of work she enjoys attending concerts, spending time outdoors, and taking care of her saltwater aquarium. Ashley recently began studies in the Ph.D. program at Victoria University in New Zealand.


Maureen Williams


Maureen served as lead lab technician in the Robertson Coral Reef Program, working with Dr. Voss and focusing on the St. Lucie Reef and Flower Garden Banks projects. As a native Floridian, she is interested in the broad impacts of human activity on coral reef ecosystems. She attended the University of Notre Dame, where she worked in stream biogeochemistry with Dr. Jen Tank, cheered at football games, and graduated with a B.S. in Biological Science. During her undergraduate years, she completed an NSF REU, a Clare Booth Luce undergraduate research fellowship, and two summer internships at Harbor Branch, during which time she focused on microcosm experiments related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Following her undergraduate years, she was awarded a Naughton Fellowship to complete her M.S. in Environmental Science at University College Dublin, Ireland with Dr. Emmanuel Reynaud. She worked on planktonic community data analysis for the Tara Oceans Expedition and spent time scuba diving and playing tag rugby. In her spare time, she is active in the Ft. Pierce and Jensen Beach kickball leagues and volunteers with the St. Lucie County Humane Society.