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University Beat

USF Researcher is One of the 'Brilliant Ten'

Ground-breaking scientist, mentor to students, role model to young girls -- all by the age of 35.  Such dedication has earned Mya Breitbart a prestigious honor.

Popular Science magazine has named the University of South Florida Associate Professor of biological oceanography as one of its "Brilliant Ten," its annual list of some of the country's brightest young scientific minds.

Like the 110 honorees before them, the members of this year's class are dramatically reshaping their fields--and the future. Some are tackling pragmatic questions, like how to secure the Internet, while others are attacking more abstract ones, like determining the weather on distant exoplanets. 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.--The Editors

"I grew up reading Popular Science, I know there's millions of people that read Popular Science, and this is a great way for what I'm doing to get out to the general public, and hopefully inspire others to get into this field," Breitbart said.

That field is metagenomics, and what Breitbart is doing is breaking new ground in identifying mystery viruses through DNA analysis.

"Her contributions have been pivotal in unmasking the enormous diversity of viruses on the planet," Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia, told Popular Science.

Until recently, there was no single test that could sort through all those viruses, so it would take many, lengthy different tests to identify a specific virus.

Under metagenomics, researchers collect samples, purify the virus particles, and then extract the genetic material. That DNA and RNA is then sequenced, which allows them to identify what types of viruses are in the sample.

In addition, the method can be used on a wide variety of samples, ranging from water to animals to plants. And, because of its ability to identify so many different viruses, metagenomics can collect enough data to figure out what 'normal' looks like--the baseline health of an environment before a virus hits it. That way, when a virus does pop up, it can be identified and possibly eliminated much quicker.

At her College of Marine Science lab, the 35-year-old Breitbart works closely with students who don't just assist her in her work, but get the opportunity to advance the science as well.

UB_Brilliant_10_Scientist_5m.jpg
Credit Mya Breitbart / USF College of Marine Science
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USF College of Marine Science
The Breitbart Lab team (clockwise from left) Brittany Leigh, Mya Breitbart, Marco Padilla-Rodriguez, Liz Fahsbender, Karyna Rosario, Dawn Goldsmith, Max Hopkins

"It's students that are driving the ideas, it's students that are out there getting their hands dirty in the field, collecting samples, analyzing the data," Breitbart said.

With a laugh, she adds, "in some ways it's unfair that I get all the credit while they're sitting there... in the lab, grinding up samples and sequencing things."

College of Marine Science Dean Jacqueline Dixon has nominated Breitbart for a top mentor award for her work with students at the undergraduate, graduate and masters levels.

"She's not just a great researcher, she is wonderful with the students," Dixon said. "It really is a team effort, and Mya's the team leader."

"These students will go on to continue developing their own labs and their own programs in this cutting-edge research," she added. "So it's not just training students for jobs, it's training students for careers."

You can see videos of some of Breitbart's work in the desert aquatic ecosystem of Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico, here. You can also hear about how Breitbart's love of science was shaped by her scientist parents and her time with the Girl Scouts by clicking on the audio link at the top of this story.