Biology major Katherine Viehl conducts research focused on the lionfish, one of the state’s most invasive species.

Though this species is native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans it has been spreading through the Atlantic Coast since 1985. Their predatorial habits cause damage to the biodiversity destroying native fish and plants of the estuaries and oceans. Viehl’s independent research under the guidance of UCF marine biologist Michelle Gaither, has led Viehl to the Indian River Lagoon, where she tracks potential distribution of lionfish within that estuarial environment.

Viehl extracts DNA strands from fish in the lagoon and examines them in Gaither’s lab, which specializes in the evolution, ecology and origin of biodiversity in marine fishes. She is looking to see if the fish from the lagoon exhibit a specific kind of DNA primer, which is aligned to lionfish.

A primer is a short nucleic acid sequence that is the starting point for DNA synthesis (replication). Think of it as a tool that can turn a small sequence of DNA into a quantifiable amount. This allows scientists to extrapolate DNA non-violnetly.researchers to extrapolate So far, five primers have tested positive for carrying lionfish DNA. Her hope is that by understanding the biology, scientists may then be able to understand and combat the invasion.

Viehl says her parents are her biggest inspiration because they always supported her desire to pursue research. That led this first-generation student to UCF, where this past month she earned the UCF Distinguished Undergraduate Award.

“Learning has been something I always enjoy,” Viehl says, “I always feel best when I’m here at school.”

In her opinion, research is her way of building upon the knowledge established before her.

“It’s pushing that [love for knowledge] a step further because you are learning stuff that isn’t common knowledge,” she says. She credits Gaither’s guidance in the lab as vital in discovering other disciplines and pursuing knowledge in an in-depth way.

Viehl is applying to doctoral programs and hopes to someday land within the realm of academia, a career where she hopes to be continuously pursuing the thing that makes her most happy: learning. She encourages students to participate in different opportunities to showcase their research work, including next year’s Student Research Week.

Student Research Week 2020 was canceled in response to the coronavirus pandemic.