University of South Florida

USF College of Marine Science


Mya Breitbart, “virus hunter” at the CMS, named Distinguished University Professor

Mya Breitbart with her team in the field.

From left to right: Y Nguyen, Makenzie Kerr, Natalie Sawaya, Mya Breitbart, Chelsea Chase, Natalia Lopez, Karyna Rosario, Kema Malki, Erin Symonds.

Written by Kristen Kusek, Former Communications Director for USF CMS

Twenty years ago, Mya Breitbart, a biological oceanography professor at the USF College of Marine Science (CMS), published a landmark paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS) about a new sequencing technique called viral metagenomics. She used it to demonstrate a statistic that shocked scientists: 200 liters of seawater contained more than 5,000 genetically diverse viruses. Many were new to science.

“It was literally the first glimpse of viruses in the ocean,” said Breitbart. Viruses are the most common biological entities in the ocean – or planet, for that matter -- but no one had really looked before because there wasn’t a good way to do it.

Perhaps as shocking as the result: It was 2002, and Breitbart was a graduate student with four more years to go before earning a doctoral degree at San Diego State University and the University of California San Diego. Typically, the white-knuckled climb of one’s graduate school career is not the time when such milestone contributions to science are made, but then again no one who knows Breitbart would call her typical.

Viral metagenomics proved revolutionary in enabling scientists to identify the viruses inside any environmental or medical sample using a “shotgun sequencing” approach. It leapfrogged a major impediment: you don’t need to know ahead of time what genetic sequences you’re looking for.

“With this method you can literally go into any sample, any system, and see what’s there,” said Breitbart.

The method eventually formed the backbone of Breitbart’s impressive research portfolio, and it’s a big part of the reason she has earned so many accolades, from been named one of the “Brilliant Ten” by Popular Science magazine, “All Star” by Florida Trend magazine, a member of the Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine of Florida (ASEMFL), and most recently, Distinguished University Professor (DUP) at USF.

She and the other two professors named DUPs by USF in 2022 will be honored at an event later this fall.

From left to right: Kaitlin Mettel, Makenzie Kerr, Chelsea Chase, Karyna Rosario, Kema Malki, Natalie Sawaya, Mya Breitbart, Natalia Lopez, Aubrey Hetzler.

From left to right: Kaitlin Mettel, Makenzie Kerr, Chelsea Chase, Karyna Rosario, Kema Malki, Natalie Sawaya, Mya Breitbart, Natalia Lopez, Aubrey Hetzler.

“This honor is incredibly special for me because I feel like I was ‘raised’ at USF,” said Breitbart, who joined USF right out of graduate school. “This is my home, my community. I feel a lot of loyalty to USF and owe my successes to the incredible support I’ve had here.”

The DUP award recognizes senior faculty members who have distinguished themselves as outstanding among their peers both within and outside USF. But what sets Breitbart from the rest isn’t the bulk of the Awards and Services section on her dossier, or the heft of her publication list (She has published 143 peer-reviewed articles in leading international journals that have collectively been cited more than 20,000 times.)

Breitbart isn’t just an award-winning scientist. She’s known as a second-to-none mentor (don’t take my word for it; look at the testimonials below) with a powerful trifecta that you certainly won’t find on her CV: an uncanny salt-of-the-earth sense of humility, a passion for discovery that’s a catchy as some of the viruses she studies, and a natural ability to make science accessible not only to the students she trains but to nonscientists, too.

From left to right: Anni Djurhuus, Lexi Creasy, Natalie Sawaya, Liz Fahsbender, Makenzie Kerr, Kema Malki, Chelsea Chase, Brittany Leigh, Noemi Van Bogaert, Katie Bruder, Karyna Rosario, Mya Breitbart, Erin Symonds.

From left to right: Anni Djurhuus, Lexi Creasy, Natalie Sawaya, Liz Fahsbender, Makenzie Kerr, Kema Malki, Chelsea Chase, Brittany Leigh, Noemi Van Bogaert, Katie Bruder, Karyna Rosario, Mya Breitbart, Erin Symonds.

It’s not unusual for Breitbart to grab staff in the dean’s office, for example, to show them a kaleidoscope of cool critters she’s viewing under the microscope. In true Breitbart-esque style, during the interview for this story Breitbart likened viral metagenomics to the tricorder used in Star Trek -- making it relatable for those of us for whom DNA and RNA genomes are a bit of a fuzzy landscape.

Understatement: she’s got a knack for clear science communication. If viruses have (for good reason) earned a bad rep in this pandemic-plagued world, Breitbart is their best hope at a re-brand.

“Viruses are in healthy organisms, too,” said Breitbart, “so they are about a lot more than just taking down organisms. I’m 100% convinced that we’d find them in absolutely everything if we just took a minute to look.”

“Focus is for losers” – Breitbart’s lab motto

Breitbart has since used viral metagenomics to investigate viruses in everything from seawater to sea lions, sediments, insects, and human feces (Yep! Turns out the human gut is brimming with pepper viruses!).

Her newest research avenue – investigating viruses in seagrasses – has been in her dreamscape for a long time and will now come to fruition thanks to a hot-off-the-presses grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Karyna Rosario, Keith Keel, Bella Ritchie, Mya Breitbart

From left to right: Karyna Rosario, Keith Keel, Bella Ritchie, Mya Breitbart.

“Nobody’s really looked at viruses in aquatic plants before, and there are so many questions we need to answer,” said Breitbart, whose passion for scientific discovery is as palpable as her enthusiasm and smile are contagious.

When asked about her often-quoted moniker as a “pioneer in viral metagenomics,” she pays quick and profound respect to her graduate advisor, Forest Rohwer, a viral ecologist at San Diego State University.

“I did the work, sure, but it’s not like I woke up one day with this grand idea. The idea was really Forest’s,” she says.

She also credits Rohwer for teaching her a simple lesson that isn’t always so simple in science: don’t be afraid. “He taught me that being a scientist doesn’t mean you have to pigeon-hole yourself and become an expert in just one thing. That’s what I used to think but now I know you can become an expert in many things,” she said, adding that the key is to embrace fearlessness, be clear about what you know and don’t know, and ask questions.

“He let me screw up, but he didn’t shame me when I didn’t know something,” said Breitbart, for whom the ethos of acceptance is a mainstay in her own lab today. “I would have missed so many opportunities if I didn’t learn that lesson.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that when asked what Breitbart is most proud of, her students rank at the top of the list.

“To work with students and help them follow their dreams is just priceless. I don’t need to be the world’s best scientist if it’s at the expense of people,” she said, a value that becomes obvious upon a quick visit to the Breitbart lab website. Yes, you’ll get the traditional lab photos but you’ll also see that her lab group, who call themselves Breitbartians, are having fun outside of work as well.

Jean Lim, Mya Breitbart, Natalie Sawaya, Keith Keel, Caitlyn Parente, Bella Ritchie, Makenzie Kerr

From left to right: Jean Lim, Mya Breitbart, Natalie Sawaya, Keith Keel, Caitlyn Parente, Bella Ritchie, Makenzie Kerr.

“Having a good lab and lab environment is about so much more than the science that you’re doing. It may sound cliché but I truly believe that it’s a family as well as a job, and people should have fun while doing the work,” said Breitbart.

When asked what she hopes people know about her more than anything, the answer was clear: “It’s that I really, really care about people. It’s more important than any one science result.”

And care they do. Just take a look at the testimonials below.


“Dr. Breitbart has a rare energy and enthusiasm that allows her to fearlessly step outside her scientific comfort zone and pursue with zeal her chosen areas of research.  … Within minutes of meeting her, it is evident that she loves her work. This enthusiastic curiosity is infectious! It has been a pleasure to watch her interact with others – whether she is sparking scientific interest among K-12 outreach students, sharing her expertise with a reporter from National Geographic, cultivating a passion for science amongst our students, or collaborating with other faculty at the university.”

- Tom Frazer, Dean

“I was one of Mya’s first students! I saw her transition from a brand-new rookie professor into the DUP she is now. Before accepting the Ph.D. position all those years ago, I was nervous about starting under the advice of an ‘unexperienced’ professor. All that worry went away went I met Mya. I think what caught my attention the most, other than her excitement for science, was the way she explained projects and she was more than happy to listen to my ideas and questions. She was clearly a teacher at heart and did not care about my newcomer student status. Early on I realized she saw me as a collaborator, which makes a big difference when it comes to PI/student relationships. Even though she seemed young, she was fearless when it came to looking for collaborators or tackling unknown territory.  

I'm not sure what is required of a DUP, but, what else can you ask of the perfect professor?

  • Mya is at the top of her field
  • She truly cares about students and is always watching for their best interest
  • She is transparent when it comes to things she doesn't know and is not afraid to step into the unknown
  • She is a great teacher (because she enjoys it!)
  • She makes science fun!”

- Karyna Rosario, who started working with Mya as a PhD student in 2006 and later worked as a research associate in the lab.

“Mya is generous with her time and has tremendous empathy for the people behind the science. She values relationships with her students and staff as much as research, making working with her fun, meaningful, and impactful. She wants to lift others up to their true potential, and that means so much to me. Mya is always mentoring students and helping them find their niche in the world. I am grateful to continue to be mentored by her and see so many of her students grow and flourish alongside her.”  

- Makenzie Kerr, who has worked with Mya since 2015 as lab manager and outreach coordinator

“Mya is a brilliant scientist and an even better person! She is a great advocate for her students and her dedication to community outreach projects is inspiring! Plus, everyone at CMS knows that the Breitbart lab is the best!” 

- Keith Keel, M.S. student

“Mya's love for science is contagious. She keeps us excited about our work, encourages our ideas, and often swings by our office just to show us something cool under the microscope.“

- Caitlyn Parente, M.S. student

“Mya exemplifies the notion that one can excel in science while also being approachable and supportive of students. Her leadership, openness, and encouragement make it easy to thrive in her lab. When I entered Mya’s lab, it quickly became apparent that she offers a nurturing environment, where lab members feel supported and heard. I am incredibly grateful to Mya for the support, training, opportunities, and mentorship that have shaped my successful and holistic graduate school experience. Like many graduate students, the road to my Ph.D. has seen many roadblocks but fortunately, I have Mya to help me navigate. Truly, without Mya’s belief in my scientific abilities and her constant encouragement, it would have been difficult for me to persevere in my science. Mya has provided space for my ideas to shape my dissertation research, which allowed me to overcome those experimental roadblocks, and gave me the opportunity to utilize techniques of great interest to me. Mya has prepared me for pursuing a career in marine microbiology. I aim to become a mentor with equal parts passion and zeal that Mya has shown is possible.”

- Natalie Sawaya, Ph.D. student

“I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this prestigious appointment.  I was incredibly lucky to have Mya as my advisor.  She is a leading researcher in her field and has a tremendous ability to think creatively about applications and new directions for her research.  She is also outstanding at developing collaborations with other researchers.  But from a student's perspective, what makes her such a wonderful advisor is how much she cares about her students.  … She wants her students to take ownership of their projects, but also provides guidance and nudges when needed.  She is terrific at preparing her students for conference presentations, which is critical because communicating our research and results is such an important part of science.  Presentations are first given to the lab group, with all lab members providing critique and constructive suggestions.  Not only does this make the presentations better, but for me it also helped me to be far less nervous when it was time to give the actual presentation.  I felt truly prepared--and based on the track record of Mya's students in winning presentation awards, I am not the only one who felt that way. Simply put, Mya is deeply invested in her students' success, and this priority is evident in everything she does.”   

- Dawn Goldsmith, Ph.D. student from 2007-2014. Dawn later worked as Mya’s lab manager for nearly a year and now works as a forensic DNA analyst for the Defense Forensic Science Center (DFSC) of the Department of the Army. What’s more, Dawn’s daughter, Sophie Goldsmith, was a summer intern in Mya's lab in the summer of 2019 (the summer before her senior year of high school).

“Mya goes well beyond what is expected of any graduate advisor.  Since 2006, Mya has played a pivotal role in my development as a scientist and educator. She facilitated all of my academic accomplishments by supporting me selflessly and consistently 100%, both professionally and personally, with sound advice and networking assistance. In every moment, she consistently supported and facilitated my growth and development as a scientist and individual. I am grateful to her because she helped make my dreams a reality. Since being Mya’s mentee, I have published 20 peer-reviewed papers, earned three fellowships (including a Fulbright research fellowship), and won three prestigious awards for research excellence.  The best professional decision that I have ever made was working with Mya. She also continues to serve as a source of inspiration - exemplifying the joys of teaching, the excitement of scientific discovery, and the importance of community outreach.” 

- Erin Symonds, M.S. student from 2006-2008, Ph.D. student from 2011-2016. Erin now works as the Strategic Partnership Manager with Water for Good, an NGO working to increase basic water access in the Central African Republic.

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