Hi! I'm James Townsend.

I have a passion for the sea and its flora and fauna.
I study their diverse adaptations with an eye for
the physics and biochemistry that underpin them.

I love a good mystery, and the ocean is full of them.


My PhD thesis focuses on the molecular structure and biochemical makeup of the gelatinous mesoglea in ctenophores (tee-nuh-fohr or ten-uh-fohr), a phylum of gelatinous zooplankton (jellyfish!). In addition to studying their innards, I'm attempting to share my accrued knowledge and media with the wider world through scientific outreach and a commitment to open access for media and data.

Aboral view of the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi, commonly found in the northeast Atlantic. They create a laminar flow of water that slowly draws prey toward their fine, sticky tentillae and awaiting mouth.

Pleurobrachia piletus, a cydippid ctenophore also common in NE Atlantic waters. These animals extend long, fine, branched tentacles covered with sticky colloblasts to capture their prey.

M. leidyi parasitized by the anemone Edwardsiella lineata. Also visible are the "comb rows," eight rows of ciliated plates or "ctenes" that ctenophores use for locomotion.

P. piletus ensnared by an unknown hydrozoan. Ctenophores constitute prominent members of many ecosystems, typically as efficient, voracious predators, but their mysterious ecology is still being explored.

Side view of M. leidyi. The rainbow of colors along the comb rows is caused by diffracted light illumnating the animal off-camera

Closup view of P. piletus with tentacles retracted into its sheaths

About Me

I'm a PhD student in the lab of Dr. Alison Sweeney at the University of Pennsylvania. Evolutionary biology, particularly the early evolution of animals, fascinates me. I use principles from biophysics and biochemistry to approach these subjects in novel and interesting ways.

As an outgrowth of my scientific work on marine invertebrates, I have a keen interest in the conservation of the world's oceans, and sharing my experiences and knowledge of them with the wider world.