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Released August 13, 2003


OCEAN SPRINGS - James "Tut" Warren's role at The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory is as a fisheries biologist, but the experience of a Missouri student could add career catalyst and matchmaker to the scientist's résumé.

The paths of Warren and student Brent Thoma crossed when Warren returned to his alma mater, Northwest Missouri State University, and presented a seminar on the Southern Miss GCRL Summer Field Program.

Warren's description of the opportunities to study marine plants, animals and processes through hands-on, feet-in university field courses clicked with the sophomore studying wildlife ecology and conservation. It re-ignited the fascination Brent had harbored for marine biology since elementary school days and opened the way for some life-changing decisions.

Now in his third summer working with Southern Miss Department of Coastal Sciences faculty at the GCRL, Brent has set his sights on a career as a university professor and on teaching and conducting research in taxonomy and ecology with his own research group. An important part of that picture is his wife, Jana, another development of the GCRL experience. She, too, is in her third summer at GCRL, preparing for a future in marine research.

She is beginning her coursework and research toward a master's degree under the direction of Dr. Richard Heard, professor of coastal sciences at the lab. She is also a teaching assistant for his class in the GCRL summer program.

Brent plans to apply to the coastal sciences master's program at the lab in December after he finishes his bachelor's degree in his home state. Earlier this summer he hooked up with Warren again, working as a lab aide in fisheries. A grant for the second half of the summer is allowing him to continue research he began in Heard's lab last summer.

His first class in 2001 gave him a glimpse of things to come. Two Southern Miss coastal sciences students, one working on his doctorate and the other serving as a teaching assistant, fed Brent's voracious appetite for knowledge about the organisms of Mississippi's coastal waters.

"As long as I had an interest, they went out of their way to work with me," he recalled.

An encounter with Heard, an international authority on marine invertebrates, solidified Brent's enthusiasm for the Southern Miss laboratory's approach to education.

"I was having trouble identifying one of the crabs we were studying," he said. "I came up (to the Oceanography Building) and met Dr. Heard. He wasn't dressed for field work, but he marched into the salt marsh to collect the crab and show me what I needed to know. All that enthusiasm and helpfulness impressed me."

The affordability of the lab's courses was another plus for Brent.

"I have always had to pay my own way. Since my university was a GCRL summer program affiliate, I could get financial aid through my school. It didn't cost me any more to come to GCRL for the field course than it did to sit in a classroom in Missouri and study things in jars instead of in their natural habitat."

A perfectly timed rainstorm the first day of class also played a part in his future. Jana, a student from Berry College in Rome, Ga., shared her umbrella in the downpour and soon love blossomed.

Brent liked her passion for knowledge and the fact that she was willing to "go out into the field and get wet and dirty." But he also admits that one of the first things he noticed was her red hair. "I have always liked red hair. She was absolutely beautiful."

The two returned to the GCRL and Heard's lab for a second summer, Jana as a visiting scientist and Brent as recipient of a scholarship endowed by a former summer program students.

The invertebrate zoologist started Brent on research to scientifically describe a new species of pinnotherid crabs, organisms that are commonly called pea crabs and usually live in burrows of large marine worms and ghost shrimps or in association with bivalves. Jana worked on parasitic isopods, a marine cousin of the roly-poly or sow bug.

By the time the couple married in December 2002, Jana had graduated and was working toward a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Missouri Columbia. Brent had transferred to the biology program at UMC.

"She missed what she had been working on in the summer, and I did, too," Brent said. "As the semester went on, we were both trying to finish papers describing the new species we had worked on at the GCRL." Jana decided to quit the biochemistry program, and both looked toward the Southern Miss lab for the future.

"GCRL gave us the opportunity to get behind the scenes and work with the professors," Brent said. "Our experiences have allowed me to be comfortable with our decisions. I feel like we are already part of the family here. That is part of the openness of the GCRL."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM