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USF professor makes Popular Science’s ‘Brilliant Ten’ list

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Published:   |   Updated: September 16, 2013 at 05:54 AM

ST. PETERSBURG — As the child of two scientists from New Jersey, she was bitten by the bug at an early age.

After Girl Scout expeditions to sea turtle nests in North Carolina and on a research vessel on the Great Lakes, “the deal was sealed,” she said.

Two decades later, the University of South Florida’s Mya Breitbart is being recognized as one of the brightest young researchers in the country, named to Popular Science magazine’s annual “Brilliant Ten” list.

The recognition “is really exciting for me,” said Breitbart, whose laboratories sit on Tampa Bay on the St. Petersburg waterfront. “We get lost in the day-to-day a lot of the time, and you don’t get a lot of recognition that says, ‘Hey, here’s someone doing something that’s actually going to make a difference in society.’ It’s wonderful to get that kind of recognition.”

And it’s a feather in USF’s cap, said William Hogarth, director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography and former dean of USF’s College of Marine Science.

“Education is a lot more competitive than people realize,” Hogarth said. “You’re competing for the best students and the best faculty. You want to get a good reputation. It helps you all the way around, and gives you some self-satisfaction that you’ve got a program that’s going in the right direction.”

Popular Science annually polls the research community for not only its best and brightest, but as the magazine said in its introduction to the Class of 2013, “The common thread between them is brilliance, of course, but also impact. If the Brilliant Ten are the faces of things to come, the world will be a safer, smarter and brighter place.”

Breitbart, 35, has combined her lifelong love for marine biology with a passion for microbiology that she picked up at the university level. She has developed a way to map the genomes of an entire ecosystem, from seawater to sewage — a process that has brought her and her USF team national attention.

Consider there are 10 million virus particles in just a drop of seawater. Breitbart new technique, she said, is like scattering them as if they were the contents of a series of jigsaw puzzles, into a single pile on a table, and assembling them all correctly. This allows the study of an entire community of particles.

The technique is a new brand of biology known as metagenomics.

Her USF team is also expanding the research into what she calls vector-enabled metagenomics.

In other words, a “vector” – a mosquito, for example, that might draw blood from several different sources – can be investigated instead of its many victims.

“Our idea is that if you can, collect the insects that are going out there and doing the sampling for you. If we can collect the insect, we can get a better idea of the types of viruses that are circulating.”

As a practical example, she points to agriculture. The destruction of a tomato crop is not discovered until the fruit is found to be deformed or ravaged by a virus. “You have the loss, then the virologist goes in to try to figure out what happened,” Breitbart said.

But imagine if researchers were able to test whiteflies that feed on plants in the area of a tomato operation, and discover the presence of a virus that may be known to cause losses to tomato fields in other parts of the world. Perhaps the virus was nearby in proximity, but conditions were not ideal for it to attack.

“By us saying, ‘Hey, guys, pay attention, there’s a potentially dangerous virus to this crop in Florida,’ then you can really ramp up the monitoring,” she said. And growers could begin strategies to prevent the spread – through targeted pesticides or even breeding resistance into plants before the virus strikes.

Breitbart’s success extends beyond the laboratory. She is an avid photographer, with her work currently on display at the Campus Grind coffee house.

And she is lauded for her work in the classroom, with Hogarth calling her “one of those unique ones” whose research is complemented by her teaching ability.

“USF is very fortunate to have her here,” he said. “The student who has the opportunity to work with her comes away as better person and a better student.”

That’s her priority, Breitbart said.

“What I think I’m proudest of is that I’m training students to become great scientists who are hopefully going to go out and become the next ‘Brilliant Ten’ in a decade.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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