May 31, 2023  
2013 - 2014 Graduate Catalog 
2013 - 2014 Graduate Catalog [ARCHIVED CATALOG]

Department of Environmental and Aquatic Animal Health

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Research within the Department of Environmental and Aquatic Animal Health emphasizes understanding the fates of contaminants and pathogens in estuarine and marine environments and their effects on important species as well as humans. A diverse faculty consisting of environmental chemists, toxicologists, ecotoxicologists, biochemists, immunologists, microbiologists, molecular geneticists, and pathobiologists collaborate to achieve these goals. A key mission of the department is to identify and detect toxicological, pathobiological and biochemical agents in the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed that affect the health of important  aquatic organisms and surrounding human populations. Research questions are pursued at all levels of biological organization from the molecular and cellular to the organismal and population levels. Activities reflect a strong commitment to provide technical support to environmental managers and stakeholders who regulate and protect the waters and natural resources of the Commonwealth regional and federal management agencies, and marine-related industries.

Preparatory Studies

Successful Environmental and Aquatic Animal Health students typically possess a degree in a natural science and should have strong written and oral communication skills. Depending on research interests, advanced course work in biology (e.g., biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics), chemistry (organic or inorganic), physics, calculus and statistics is expected. Students lacking these courses are strongly advised to complete them before matriculation rather than while in graduate school. Students are strongly encouraged to discuss academic background, research experience and career objectives with prospective mentors before applying.

Typical Course of Study

The program prepares students for careers as environmental scientists, educators and managers. Since departmental research and educational programs are interdisciplinary, incoming students are expected to have strong backgrounds in biology and chemistry. Following satisfactory completion of the SMS core curriculum, students may pursue courses and research in any of the major program areas (environmental chemistry, toxicology, environmental risk assessment, environmental microbiology or pathobiology). The department offers a number of relevant courses including MSCI 559 - Parasitology , MSCI 560 - Fundamentals of Ecotoxicology , MSCI 562 - Water Pollution , MSCI 563 - Environmental Chemistry , MSCI 564 - Aquatic Toxicology , MSCI 565 - Principles of Pathobiology , MSCI 566 - Diseases of Marine Organisms , MSCI 567 - Comparative Immunology , MSCI 573 - Environmental Microbiology , MSCI 583 - Molecular Genetic Data Analysis, Bioinformatics , MSCI 638 - Fish Histology and Histo-pathology , MSCI 640 - Quantitative Ecotoxicology , MSCI 641 - Identifying, Quantifying and Communicating Environmental Risk , and MSCI 642 - Practical Environmental Statistics . Students are expected to select at least two departmental offerings and typically complement their curriculum with additional courses offered by this and other departments. Students in the department are also required to enroll in MSCI 515B - EAAH Dept Seminar  each fall and spring semester.

Areas of Research

Environmental Chemistry

Research addresses the sources, transport, fate, bioavailability and impacts of contaminants in marine and estuarine systems. Some recent efforts include the behavior of anti-foulants, use of geographic information systems (GIS) for modeling spatial distributions of environmental data and development of environmentally friendly analytical procedures. Emerging contaminants are a particular interest. The faculty collaborates with international researchers, federal and state agencies (e.g., EPA, NOAA, DOE, and VA Dept. of Environmental Quality VA Dept. of Health) and private industry. Recent student research has examined the binding of pesticides to natural organic matter and subsequent impact on bioavailability and toxicity; bioremediation of tributyltin-contaminated sediment in a created wetland; factors influencing the degradation rate of crop protectants in natural waters; the utility of supercritical fluid extraction for the determination of flame retardants in fish.

Environmental Microbiology

This program studies indicator or pathogenic microorganisms in waters used for recreation, aquaculture, and shellfish industries. Research includes development and validation of new methods for detection of microorganisms of human health significance in marine environments, and studies to understand processes that contribute to eutrophication and microbial contamination of receiving waters. A particular strength of this program is multidisciplinary research on microorganisms that are pathogenic to fish.


Effects of toxic chemicals in water and sediment are measured at the molecular to population levels. Endpoints include 1) uptake and elimination of pollutants by individual organisms, 2) vital processes (mortality, growth, reproduction), and 3) mechanisms of internal distribution, biotransformation, and clearance of hazardous chemicals. Molecular, cellular, and whole organism responses are being evaluated as a basis for predicting population effects at sublethal concentrations.

Diseases of Marine Animals

Research in this field 1) focuses on infectious and noninfectious diseases of fish and shellfish, 2) determines the mechanism(s) by which pathogens cause disease in the host organisms, 3) examines pathological consequences of exposures of estuarine animals to contaminants, 4) studies etiology and epidemiology of pathogens in estuarine and marine organisms, 5) investigates host defense mechanisms in order to develop diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for use in aquaculture, and 6) seeks to understand the impact of toxic materials on disease processes. The pathobiology group has developed an Aquatic Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory using modern histological, microbiological, immunological, and molecular techniques to study diseases in shellfish and fish. Additional studies focus on marine genomics and disease mechanisms, molecular phylogenetics, population genetics and the development of molecular diagnostics for pathogens.

Molecular Genetics

Studies focus on genomic analyses of marine and estuarine animals and pathogenic organisms. Environmental water quality studies involve molecular detection, identification and examination of the effects of environmental parameters on harmful algal bloom (HAB) organisms and human pathogens. Phylogenetic, population genetic, and genomic research targets shellfish, finfish, as well as parasites and aquatic pathogens.

Environmental Risk Assessment

Risk assessment tools are applied to evaluate the risk associated with exposure to hazardous chemicals, pathogens, bacterial agents, both individually and collectively in complex mixtures. The goal is to provide a conceptual framework that will improve environmental management by allowing resource agencies to focus their limited resources on those issues of greatest importance.