DOAG: Employee Spotlight: Dr. Inke Sunila

This article appeared in the January 3, 2013 edition of the Ag Report

Employee Spotlight:  Dr. Inke Sunila

By the Bureau of Aquaculture


Dr. Inke Sunila has worked for 15 years as the shellfish pathologist at the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Aquaculture, which serves as the lead state agency on shellfish. 


Bivalve pathology (the study of diseases in a class of shellfish that includes oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels) may sound like a most boring topic, but it is in fact a complicated tale of ancient organisms originating over 450 million years ago.  During those millions of years, bivalves have endured searing heat, icing, desiccation (dehydration) during low tides, pollution, and lack of oxygen.  They have been exposed to innumerable parasites and pathogens. 


Not surprisingly, bivalves have evolved into genetically complex organisms with over 28,000 genes (humans have only 21,000).    Due to their relatively complex anatomy (structure) and histology (tissue make-up), bivalve pathology parallels that of higher organisms and vertebrates. 


Diseases in bivalves can be caused by many different types of pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and metazoa.  Bivalves have sophisticated immune systems with cells that are able to recognize and destroy foreign invaders, and have mechanisms not present in higher organisms, which have enabled their extremely long existence in the world’s oceans. 


Bivalves also have a special form of chronic inflammatory response—pearls—which humans prize and wear as jewelry.


During her distinguished career, Dr. Sunila has collected a comprehensive and international bivalve pathology slide collection.  The collection consists of the histological (tissue sample) slides from her last 15 years working in Long Island Sound, prior 10 years working in the Chesapeake Bay, and 10 years of bivalve pathology research in the Baltic Sea. 


While collaborating with Dr. Sunila, colleagues from different parts of the world have added to the collection, which is now a valuable resource to students of shellfish pathology. 


Shellfish pathology is missing something very important:  a textbook on the topic.  Shellfish pathology is learned only via internships with more experienced scientists and by attending the lean offering of shellfish pathology classes at various universities.  


 Dr. Sunila is regarded as a national expert regarding shellfish pathology and is willing to pass the information to the next generation of shellfish pathologists, as it was passed to her.  The Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Aquaculture has served as a hub for teaching shellfish pathology for years. 


        Dr. Sunila has taught graduate students and Ph.D. candidates from France, Spain, Canada, Brazil, Finland, Russia, and Pakistan, as well as more locally from UCONN and Southern Connecticut State University.  Students provide their own funding and study at the bureau for durations ranging from weeks to months.  These collaborations have produced master’s theses, Ph.D. dissertations, and numerous scientific articles.   


At the end of January, Dr. Sunila will collaborate with Florida Gulf Coast University, at their request, on a teaching assignment in which a group of students will learn the basics of bivalve pathology.  The university will cover all expenses. 


Two days of teaching will start with a seminar about factors causing pathological changes in bivalves, followed by categories of pathological changes in bivalves.  Each student will be provided with a study slide collection of bivalve pathogens, parasites, and lesions, accompanied by a manual for self-study.  During the individual slide reading of the collection, students will learn to independently recognize abnormal characteristics in tissues.  Some of the students have already produced histological slides from their own experiments and field sampling.  Parasites and lesions will be identified with Dr. Sunila.


Dr. Sunila is a tremendous asset to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, the shellfish industry, and to research and academia both nationally and worldwide.  The agency appreciates her excellent work and contributions, day in and day out, and looks forward to her continued service for years to come.