Outstanding Graduate Nicole Powers Follows Passion for Microbes, Marine Life at TAMU-CC

By Darrell J. Pehr | Published: May 12, 2021

Outstanding Graduate Nicole Powers Follows Passion for Microbes, Marine Life at TAMU-CC
Nicole Powers, the Spring 2021 Outstanding Graduate from the College of Science and Engineering, is wrapping up her Ph.D. in Marine Biology.

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – The vast open beaches, stunning Texas sunrises, and incredible bird and marine life are what draw many people to the Coastal Bend. Those cell-phone-ready images initially drew Nicole Powers, too, but her voyage of discovery here on the microbiotic level gave her a rare insight into life on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Powers, the Spring 2021 Outstanding Graduate from the College of Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, is wrapping up her Ph.D. in Marine Biology. Powers was nominated by five different faculty in her college for the honor and holds a 4.0 GPA.

Powers earned her undergraduate degree at Oklahoma State University.

“Throughout my life, I have always been interested in human, animal, and environmental health,” Powers said. At OSU, she was able to work as a research assistant in a microbiology lab.

“The project that initially sparked my interest was focused on Serratia marcescens, a bacterium that is able to produce a pink pigment called prodigiosin,” she said. “Seeing the colorful world of bacteria opened my eyes to the wonders of microbiology. At the same time, I was working for Sea Life Aquarium, where I was able to teach people and learn about marine biology and the importance of conservation.”

With her newfound focus on things only visible with a microscope, Powers was pleased to discover the Marine Biology Program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, a favorite place the Southlake, Texas, native had visited on holidays nearly every year during high school.

“I wanted to find a school where I could pursue a degree that combined my love for both microbiology and marine biology,” Powers said. “After doing some research, I learned about Dr. Jeff Turner’s microbial and environmental genomics laboratory, which aligned perfectly with my research interests.”

Turner, associate professor of marine biology at A&M-Corpus Christi, was impressed with Powers from the beginning.

“Nicole was very professional, very mature, and she had a lot of research experience under her belt already as an undergraduate,” Turner said. “She had a 4.0 GPA and she had a very strong interest in microbiology.”

Working in Turner’s Laboratory for Microbial & Environmental Genomics, Powers completed three projects dealing with the quality of coastal water.

“Nicole’s research has established her as an authority on the subject of bacterial pollution in coastal bays,” Turner said. “I fully expect Nicole to continue working on this issue and I fully expect her to be the lead – the principal investigator – of her own lab here in Texas that is working hard to solve this problem.”

At the Island University, Powers volunteered for the Islander Stream Team, training fellow students to assess water quality throughout the Coastal Bend. With the Green Team, she worked on improving recycling and composting throughout campus and for scientific conferences hosted at the university. She worked with the Teen STEM Science Café and the Texas Master Naturalist Program, where she was able to teach people about the importance of microbiology within the environment.

Powers also taught several sections of undergraduate microbiology and biology labs and led graduate-level educational modules focused on oceans and human health, including antimicrobial resistance and natural product discovery in the marine environment.

Among Powers’ research projects are two that focused on bacterial source tracking in seawater bordering Corpus Christi and Rockport.

“The main purpose of our study was to figure out if fecal waste in Corpus Christi Bay was coming from humans, dogs, and/or gulls,” Powers said. “We also wanted to see if the amount of fecal waste in the bay increased after it rained. During our study, we saw that fecal waste was coming from all three sources. Surprisingly, the waste from humans was higher after periods of dry weather instead of rainfall. These results suggest that the human waste could be coming from degraded infrastructure instead of stormwater runoff.”

Results of Powers’ projects have provided city leaders with valuable information on where pollution is coming from, so that impaired water quality in the Coastal Bend can be mitigated and remediated.

Powers was a recipient of the Eugene and Millicent Goldschmidt Award, which provided funding for the investigation of antibiotic resistance in Corpus Christi Bay.

In her final year of graduate school, Powers faced extraordinary challenges, not only in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic but also as a new mother.

“I have learned to set reasonable short- and long-term goals to help manage my time and avoid overworking myself,” Powers said. “I’ve also learned to work as efficiently as I can in 20-minute intervals, while my 7-month-old is napping! I’ve been able to tackle new challenges one day at a time; some days are certainly still stressful, but the number of productive and exciting days definitely outnumber the tough days. I’m fortunate to have found a wonderful support team in my family and lab group, who have helped me considerably throughout my journey.”

Powers was especially grateful for the mentorship she received from Turner.

“His support has been unwavering during my entire graduate career, and his guidance has been paramount to my success,” Powers said. “In addition to his classroom and research mentorship, Dr. Turner has taught me valuable lessons about time management, managing grant and scholarship budgets, and balancing the rigorous demands of graduate school. He has always encouraged me to think as an independent researcher and respectable scientist.”

Powers plans to become a principal investigator at a university that fosters cross-disciplinary research that benefits environmental and human health.

“Throughout my career, I will seek out opportunities to continue my education as a mentor and a teacher,” she said. “I hope I can continue encouraging women and underrepresented minorities in pursuing STEM-related careers.”