Previously a research scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, Alison Gould joins the Biology Department this summer as assistant professor.

An evolutionary ecologist and microbiologist, Gould’swork seeks to identify the key mechanisms regulating the specificity and stability of microbial symbioses from an evolutionary scale down to the molecular level. Primarily, her focus is the bioluminescent symbiosis involving fish hosts in the genus Siphamia and luminous bacteria in the vibrio family.

As a postdoc at University of California, Berkeley, Gould also investigated microbial symbiosis in the Drosophila melanogaster gut microbiome and was the lead author on a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that quantified the effects of symbiont interactions on host fitness. She was awarded an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship to continue investigating bioluminescent symbiosis in Siphamia fishes using biological collections and an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award (DP5) to launch her lab and further develop the Siphamia-Photobacterium symbiosis as a vertebrate-bacteria model for symbiosis research.

At the heart of your research, what is the BIG question you are trying to answer?

All organisms are dependent on microbes for their success, yet very little is known with respect to how these essential symbiotic partnerships form and persist through time as well as how they operate at a mechanistic level. My research addresses questions of how microbial symbiosis evolves as well as the mechanisms involved in symbiont recognition and host colonization.

How do you go about trying to find those answers?

My lab primarily investigates an experimentally tractable symbiosis between a coral reef cardinalfish and a luminous bacterium to answer these questions. We integrate field studies and experimental assays with various genomic and molecular techniques to characterize the specificity of the association and the molecular conversation that takes place between the host and symbiont as well as the symbiont community dynamics.

What unique methodologies or approaches do you bring to your research, and how do they set you apart in your field?

This emerging vertebrate-bacteria model has potential to address a wide range of questions in microbial symbiosis. Due to its binary nature, involving only a single host and single bacterium, we can tease apart the complex mechanisms that regulate the association, including how the host and symbiont communicate with one another. The light organ that houses the bioluminescent bacteria is also gut-associated, providing parallels to the vertebrate gut microbiome. Currently we are harnessing the power of long-read sequencing technology to investigate strain-level symbiont diversity in the system.

What recent breakthrough or discovery in your field has inspired or influenced your own research agenda?

The importance of sub-species, strain-level diversity in the microbiome has received much-needed attention, particularly as sequencing technologies have improved, making this level of resolution more accessible. We are finding a large amount of strain diversity in the Siphamia symbiosis with important phenotypic differences between strains and are excited to explore their effects on the symbiosis.

How do you plan to involve students in your research projects, and what opportunities will you offer for their active participation?

Undergraduate students will be an integral part of my lab’s research program at Temple University. There will be opportunities for students to gain experience in microbiology, genomics, aquarium husbandry, and even field opportunities. I hope to work with the CST’s Research Scholars Program to provide meaningful research opportunities to Temple’s undergraduates. 

Are there specific faculty collaborations or interdisciplinary projects you're excited to explore here at CST?

I’m really excited to develop collaborations with faculty involved with the Center for Computational Genetics and Genomics (CCGG) as well as other CST faculty interested in exploring the microbes in their respective study systems.

In what ways do you hope your research will contribute to society at large?

My ultimate goal is to help untangle the complexities underlying beneficial host-microbe interactions and in doing so, provide the research community with a powerful new vertebrate model for symbiosis research.

Can you share the journey that brought you to Temple University, and what aspects of the university's culture and mission attracted you to join our community?

I have a multi-disciplinary background, with undergraduate degrees in mathematics and biology, a master’s degree in marine biology, and a PhD in ecology & evolutionary biology. I was really drawn to the Biology Department at Temple because of its breadth of expertise in various areas of biology. I was also really impressed by the department’s unique strength in genomics and bioinformatics.

What inspired or motivated you to pursue a career in science?

I’ve always had a sense of wonder of how and why the world works, especially in the oceans. Combined with my sense of adventure, this curiosity fueled my drive to become a scientist. As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve found that helping students spark their natural curiosities is one of the primary drivers for me as a scientist.

In a world full of serious academic research, what's one quirky or offbeat topic that you're particularly passionate about?

I’m totally captivated by the search for life on other planets. I have no doubt that the first alien will be some sort of microbe!