College of Marine Sciences & Maritime Studies

A Sea of Possibilities: Texas A&M-Galveston Professor’s Promotion Represents Dreams Achieved


The animals Dr. Maria Pia Miglietta studies might not have hearts or brains, but she has plenty of both. The jellyfish scientist is an integral part of Texas A&M University at Galveston’s Department of Marine Biology and was recently promoted to associate professor with tenure.

Originally from southern Italy, “the heel of the boot,” as she refers to it, Miglietta always found herself drawn to the nearby Mediterranean Sea and the fascinating world of jellyfish.

“I have never left the world of jellies,” she says, detailing her academic career, “And I don’t think I’ll want to!”

After earning her bachelor and master’s degrees in biology in Italy, Miglietta journeyed to the United States, where she earned her Ph. D. at Duke University in 2005. After two post-doctoral fellowships, at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama and then at Pennsylvania State University, Miglietta was a research faculty at the University of Notre Dame before joining Texas A&M University at Galveston. 

Miglietta (second from left) on a trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama with students.
Miglietta (second from left) on a trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama with students.

Her research has taken her from South Africa to Iceland and Japan, diving all over the world in the name of jellyfish research regarding genetics and genomics.

“I study a group of Cnidaria, and to understand their evolution I have collected species in those places. It’s often been challenging but crucial and really changed my life. Once I got here, I knew the U.S. was the place I could succeed in my work and I love it,” she said.

The jelly group Miglietta is referring to is the hydrozoans. One specific species is the Turritopsis dohrnii, the jellyfish that “lives forever” by reverting back to a polyp during the end stage of its life cycle instead of sying. In her lab on campus, Miglietta and marine biology students study the evolution, genetics and ecology of the “immortal jellyfish.” 

Since starting at Texas A&M-Galveston in 2014, she has established the Miglietta Lab and furthered her fascinating strain of research.

“I knew from my previous work that being on the ocean can give you so many possibilities. In the lab, we started studying jellies —my theme all along. But we’re looking at more than just genomics. Jellyfish form huge blooms that create problems in tourism and commercial fishing environments. We’re trying to understand how they react to changes in the environment, why these blooms appear and disappear, and more about how they survive here in the Gulf of Mexico, how they’ll respond to climate change, etc.”

Department Head Dr. Daniel Roelke is equally invested in Miglietta’s research and proud of her tenure achievement.

“Dr. Miglietta’s research program is gaining momentum fast, with areas of focus including biology of cell transdifferentiation and invasion biology. I’m excited to see what she does next,” he added.

Earning tenure means that Miglietta can focus on her research and take chances on cutting-edge research projects. The stability has her feeling confident and thankful.

“This means I have the freedom to choose projects I really believe in and I’m excited to see where we can go as a lab. There’s lots of projects that are groundbreaking in this research field,” Miglietta explained. “For me, this is the realization of a dream. I came to the U.S. to work on these animals, now I have my own lab and tenure means I’m here to stay.”

“Dr. Miglietta is a perfect example of the passionate professional who engages fully in both discovery and sharing those discoveries with her students,” exclaimed Executive Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer, Texas A&M University-Galveston and Associate Provost, Texas A&M University Dr. Patrick Louchouarn. “She is an awarded teacher because she brings that passion in the classroom and the field. I believe that her research on ‘immortal jellyfish’ has a huge potential to provide translational knowledge to other fields of life sciences and the fact that she pursues that field with such commitment tells you that she knows something many of us don’t: Jellyfish are cool and Dr. Miglietta is making sure the world understands why.”

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