Build Your Support Network: Spotlight on Blake Ushijima

May 12, 2023

Blake Ushijima
Blake Ushijima, Ph.D.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
Throughout the Caribbean, corals are dying—and Blake Ushijima, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology and Marine Biology at University of North Carolina Wilmington, is doing something about it. It’s not easy, though. As Ushijima has learned throughout his career, tackling complex problems means joining forces with scientists from diverse fields and backgrounds. “You need to be able to branch out and collaborate with people,” he said. “I've seen some people where they start [a project] and are like, ‘No, I'm going to do this myself.’ That's not how you should approach it." 

Ushijima’s interest in becoming a coral disease scientist was seeded early in life. Born and raised in Hawaiʻi, his experiences maintaining a 200-gallon saltwater aquarium built by his grandfather (who was an avid diver and fisherman) sparked his love of marine biology. His intrigue with the microbial world didn’t develop until later when, as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, he decided to take a few microbiology courses because they seemed interesting.

Ultimately, Ushijima became hooked on the topic and put his curiosity about marine life and microbes (and his aquarium-cleaning skills) to good use, landing an internship at the Marine Station at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. There, he spent his time scrubbing coral tanks—until a graduate student recruited him to extract DNA from a growing collection of coral samples. For the graduate student, these extractions were a checkmark on a list of tasks. But for Ushijima, they marked an important step in his research career, prompting an eventual shift from cleaning tanks to working in the lab studying bacteria that infect corals. This experience merged his 2 scientific interests (microbiology and marine biology) and motivated him to pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

As a graduate student in the laboratory of Greta Aeby, Ph.D., a coral disease ecologist, Ushijima continued to study coral diseases. His work focused on the bacterial pathogen, Vibrio coralliilyticus, which infects diverse coral and shellfish species. Ushijima’s research led him on some “awesome” trips, including to Palmyra Atoll—a string of islets south of Hawaiʻi surrounded by 15,000 acres of reefs—where he helped uncover and characterize bacteria killing corals in the region. “[These trips] got me doing microbiology in the real world, away from a fancy laboratory,” Ushijima said. “Basically, [you] bring everything on ship, set up your own microbiology lab [and] look for a pathogen with [only] a few weeks of time there.” 

Ushijima credits these “real-world” experiences with changing the trajectory of his research career, honing his focus on applied environmental microbiology. They also highlighted the personal foundations of his work. “The fact that [I was] looking at disease outbreaks affecting Pacific reefs really resonated with me, because that's what I grew up with. That's where I'm from. And that was the impetus for all of this.” 

By “all of this,” Ushijima means the career and projects he has led since graduating with his Ph.D. in 2016. He completed a post-doc with Claudia Häse, Ph.D., at Oregon State University, studying oyster and shellfish diseases and developing probiotics to combat them. In the meantime, he began collaborating with Valerie Paul, Ph.D., Director at the Smithsonian Marine Station (SMS) in Fort Pierce, Florida, to understand stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), an emerging disease decimating coral populations in the Caribbean.

Coral with rust-colored lesions on its surface.
Coral affected by SCTLD.
Source: G.Mannaerts/Wikimedia Commons
“[It’s] the biggest threat right now,” Ushijima said. “Most people don't realize how bad the disease outbreak is. It started in 2014, so it's been nearly 10 years. It’s now in at least 2 dozen different territories or countries in the Caribbean, and it's destroying over 20 different coral species.” While the mechanisms underlying SCTLD development are unclear, antibiotics can halt or slow disease progression, suggesting bacteria are involved. Ushijima noted that the fatality rate for SCTLD is 100% in the most susceptible corals, leaving reefs looking like ghost towns. “It's spooky when you see it, because it's just barren mounds,” he said.

In 2018, Ushijima transitioned to working at the SMS full-time, after receiving a George Burch Fellowship, which supports distinguished scholars in residence at the Smithsonian. During his tenure at the SMS, he helped build up the Station’s microbiology lab, renovate the coral quarantine facility and ramp up research on SCTLD. With a nod to his postdoctoral studies, Ushijima also served as one of the lead investigators at the Coral Health and Marine Probiotics Lab, where he spearheaded efforts to develop probiotics for treating SCTLD and preventing its transmission.

Now, as an assistant professor at UNCW, Ushijima has begun developing high-throughput methods for identifying probiotics to combat SCTLD. Ushijima’s lab is also working with collaborators at UNCW to determine whether probiotics could improve coral reproduction. Though progress toward deploying probiotics in the field has been made, “we need to do more testing and see what’s actually effective,” Ushijima said. “No one’s done this before, so we’re kind of just shooting in the dark.” However, he’s motivated to make an impact. “I always tell people, ‘No, this [SCTLD] outbreak is not going to kill all the coral. We're going to take care of that.’”

As he has worked to save corals from impending death, Ushijima has faced both scientific and personal challenges, the latter of which are tied, in part, to the lack of diversity in STEM. “You mentally feel like you don’t belong when you stick out in a room. It can be very isolating sometimes,” Ushijima said. “Not every new researcher has the same background or life experiences,” he continued. “Even [if you’re] at the same career level, you might have absolutely nothing in common.” Ushijima reflected on how institutions will try to bring new researchers together to foster community, but only those who are part of the majority benefit. For everyone else, “it can turn out to be isolating instead.”

However, Ushijima emphasized that it takes all kinds of scientists to understand the world, highlighting the value of collaboration and diversity in all its forms. Indeed, he routinely collaborates with scientists who can fill in gaps in his own training to tackle complex questions. “When you don't have diversity, you're narrowing a field’s view,” he said. “Different people bring in different points of view [and] different ways to approach things. You don't need an Ivy League pedigree background to be a good scientist—[and] you don't need that to have a good idea, either. The more points of view you can have, the more ways you can attack a problem.”

And while surrounding yourself with scientists from diverse fields and perspectives is key for conducting impactful science, Ushijima noted that finding those with similar life experiences can lessen feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging. He advised early-career scientists to “find your support network, even [if] they're not physically there,” stating that “we’re all connected online somehow.” Ushijima pointed to Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science, an organization that elevates and supports a global community of Black women scientists, started by his collaborator, Nikki Traylor-Knowles, Ph.D., as an example. “It’s a very amazing way to connect with people with similar life experiences [and] to have a support network across the world.” 

For his own part, Ushijima works to create a sense of community for UNCW students and colleagues as part of the Department of Biology and Marine Biology’s Science Access, iNclusion, and Diversity (SAND) Committee. The committee aims to understand issues faced by scientists in the department and how to address them. The group’s initiatives include compiling resources for undergraduate and graduate students on various topics (e.g., mental health and education centers among others), reforming class syllabi or developing rubrics for new hires. The overall goal is to foster an environment where everyone has the support network they need to thrive. “It may not seem like it's super important at first,” Ushijima said, “but over time, being able to have that familiarity or have that connection with somebody really does help.”  

Author: Madeline Barron, Ph.D.

Madeline Barron, Ph.D.
Madeline Barron, Ph.D. is the Science Communications Specialist at ASM. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.