Guam NSF EPSCoR welcomes new associate curator of GECCO Biorepository

Guam NSF EPSCoR welcomes Diego Vaz, Ph.D., as an associate curator of the Guam Ecosystems Collaboratorium for Corals and Oceans (GECCO) Biorepository. The GECCO Biorepository is both a physical and cyber warehouse of records operated by Guam NSF EPSCoR.

Vaz was born and raised in Brazil, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a master’s in zoology from the University of São Paulo. In 2015, he moved to the United States where he received a doctorate in marine sciences from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. Before his current position with Guam NSF EPSCoR, Vaz was a biodiversity postdoctoral fellow at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

“Taxonomy and the evolutionary part of science is the backbone of any field,” said Vaz. “You have to know the organism you have or you cannot move forward. You cannot do any experiments with them and you cannot protect them if you don’t know what you are dealing with.”

As an associate curator of the GECCO Biorepository, Vaz will research the morphology of coral reef fishes – particularly cryptobenthic fishes. Morphology is a branch of biology that deals with the study of the form and structure of living organisms. Cryptobenthic fishes are small fish that live near or within the seabed named for their elusive nature. They contribute significantly to the food web of coral reefs.

“Cryptobenthic fishes are crucial in the production of organic matter in the reef – not because they produce energy like algae, but because their high density and high mortality feed higher trophic levels, allowing the reef to be so diverse,” said Vaz.

Studying cryptobenthic fishes involves a variety of methods. As much as possible, the GECCO Biorepository takes photographs of its specimens as they exist in nature. To examine the organs of a specimen, manual dissections are performed.

When it comes to examining a specimen’s skeleton, Vaz uses a technique called clearing and staining. In this process, specimens are bathed in a digestive enzyme to slowly break down their flesh and muscles, rendering them transparent. After, they are treated with a series of dyes that stain the cartilage and bones differently.

Recently, the UOG Marine Laboratory acquired a Computed Tomography (CT) scanner. A CT scanner allows for the examination of skeletons without modifying a specimen.

“This is particularly important when you want to study rare organisms,” said Vaz. “When it comes to specimens that you can just collect in the field, it’s easier to do an invasive procedure. When it comes to a rare specimen in a collection, no one will allow you to do a procedure because they want to keep them as whole as possible.”

Regarding his experience working on the Guam NSF EPSCoR project, Vaz said that it’s been interesting to see multiple collaborations working together towards similar goals.

“Collaborations can be very challenging,” said Vaz. “Everyone works differently. This project is the first time I’ve seen such a large group of people collaborating effectively. It’s been a very interesting and cool experience to see that.”

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