Dr. Alaina Weinheimer
Alaina (she/her/hers) successfully defended her PhD in the Fall of 2022. Starting in February of 2023, she begins a postdoctoral fellowship position at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine working with Dr. Ramunas Stepanauskas to examine how bacteria fight viruses in the ocean.
Alaina joined the Aylward Lab in Fall of 2018, focusing on microbial ecology and evolution. Particularly fascinated by the roles of viruses in the ocean, Alaina examined how bacteriophages (viruses of bacteria) impact the evolution and composition of microbial communities, which drive biogeochemical cycles and underly food webs in the ocean. She has also been curious about how phages can help protect marine animals by killing both pathogenic bacteria and algae that form blooms.
While pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Biology at Penn State, she worked in coral reef ecology labs where she was exposed to the numerous threats to coral and the potential roles of microbes and viruses in mediating or exacerbating these threats.
Minoring in Microbiology, she wanted to further explore the impacts of microbes in the ocean and went on to complete her Master’s degree in Marine Microbiology at the Max Planck Institute in Bremen, Germany. For her master’s thesis project, she used metagenomic data to investigate how viruses affect the microbiome of deep sea mussels at hydrothermal vents. Working on this project exposed her to both the advantages and challenges of applying computational approaches to microbial ecology.
Inspired by the power of computational approaches to answering questions in viral ecology, Alaina worked in the Aylward Lab with the goal of developing novel methods in computational biology to address questions in environmental virology. Specifically, she focused on elucidating the roles of jumbo bacteriophages (genomes > 200,000 basepairs, roughly 10x the size of coronavirsues, for perspective) which have been systematically overlooked by traditional methods in virology due to their large particle sizes. In her PhD research, she explored the structure and function of viral communities, their phylogenetic diversity, and their role in mediating environmental change. Her interest in environmental disturbances led her to enroll in the Interfaces of Global Change Program, to improve her understanding of both their environmental and societal impacts. Her overarching goal has been to supplement ecosystem management strategies and environmental policies with viral and microbial knowledge – all with the hopes of improving sustainability and environmental stewardship.