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Roxanna Smolowitz
Photo of Roxanna SmolowitzRoxanna Smolowitz in not afraid to look death in the eye. . . or the gill, shell, mantle, or siphon. The aquatic veterinarian and pathologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole specializes in shellfish diseases.

Smolowitz is in the midst of several WHOI Sea Grant-supported research projects to "re-examine old diseases using new techniques." Her work with QPX, or quahog parasite unknown, has proven that the organism is directly transmissable from one quahog to another, and that no intermediate host is required to pass on the disease. sThe organism is also pathogenic, as many suspected.

Laboratory experiments with QPX have also resulted in a better understanding of the organism’s preferences: salinities 28 parts per thousand or higher, water temperature 24 degrees Celsius.

Smolowitz’s recent work with oysters, in cooperation with colleagues in Connecticut and Virginia, has shown that diseases don’t always behave the way they are "supposed to." One example involves the oyster disease SSO, for seaside organism. Smolowitz recently confirmed its presence in oysters from Martha’s Vineyard, where it was originally thought to be MSX, or multinucleated sphere unknown. (MSX, a more severe disease, has afflicted the island’s oysters for years.)

The coexistence of two diseases confounds not only the diagnosis, but the management approaches as well. "Unfortunately," says Smolowitz, "it’s not clear cut. There is no ‘neat little package’ for MSX or SSO, and it will be even harder to distinguish between them and to tell whether one or both are causing mortalities."

To add to her disease repertoire, Smolowitz and a New York colleague have received funding from Connecticut Sea Grant to look at shell disease in lobster. Shell disease has been identified all along the coast from outer Long Island Sound to Buzzards Bay for the last three years and appears to be heading north into Cape Cod Bay. Smolowitz wonders if the migration is a normal variation or perhaps a change in microbial distribution in the ocean due to global warming.

And if all of her scientific questions don’t keep her busy enough, Smolowitz, who has two sons and a granddaughter, also owns and operates Coonamessett Farm with her husband, Ron, an engineer who designs fishing gear and whale release devices to prevent entanglements. The Falmouth-based, pick-your-own farm features several animals—alpacas, Nigerian dwarf goats, shetland sheep, and miniature donkeys—though nothing with shells.

—Tracey Crago, WHOI Sea Grant

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