Grad students snag top NSF fellowship

The College of Science is thrilled to announce that three PhD students have received prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) awards for 2017.  Rebecca Lucia Maher in microbiology and David Lynn Hubert and Claire Couch in integrative biology are among the seven students at Oregon State University to receive NSF GRFP fellowships this year.

For the 2017 competition, NSF received more than 13,000 applications for more than 2,000 awards in March. Began  in 1952, the NSF GRF Program is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, and recognizes and supports outstanding master’s and doctoral students who have demonstrated high potential in STEM disciplines very early in their graduate training. According to NSF, “These talented individuals have gone on to make important discoveries, win Nobel Prizes, train many generations of American scientists and engineers and create inventions that improve our lives.”

The GRFP provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period for graduate study that leads to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in science or engineering. Students receive a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance, which goes to the graduate institution.

This year, the award-winning projects in science are focused on vertebrates, mammals and marine invertebrates in a variety of habitats. The young scientists working on them may over the course of their careers usher in transformative and foundational discoveries in the fields of vertebrate biology, disease ecology and marine science.

The winners are two biology doctoral students who will study gene expression during hibernation of garter snakes and respiratory disease in African buffalo respectively, and a microbiology doctoral student who will investigate how the coral microbiome is affected by predation and nutrient availability.

From high school dropout to award-winning Ph.D. student

David Hubert, a tattooed Oregon State biology alumnus, has had a highly unconventional path to the prestigious NSF fellowship. A high school dropout at 18 and father at 20, Hubert was a professional tattoo artist for four years before deciding to resume his education at age 25.

His interest in science came from a fish husbandry hobby and avidly reading science magazines. Hubert, a native of Corvallis, studied at Linn Benton Community College for three years where an inspiring biology teacher and an internship at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, studying the effects of ocean acidification on oysters, propelled him towards OSU and more intensive studies in biology. He went on to complete his undergraduate studies at OSU.

Only in the first year of graduate school, Hubert has evinced a remarkable dedication for teaching and mentorship that goes beyond his responsibilities as a graduate student. His interest in teaching has also taken many forms, from lab and classroom instruction to curriculum development and training other students how to teach biology.

As an undergraduate, Hubert was a learning assistant in various biology courses and assisted with piloting the learning assistant program for the vertebrate biology course, which involved developing workshops and pedagogical materials, teaching peer-mentoring and working with course faculty to facilitate student learning in the course.

The learning assistant program in OSU, supported by a NSF grant, trains top undergraduate students to facilitate peer discussion and class activities in large lecture classes. The learning assistants circulate among students and foster in-class learning by providing individualized feedback as students grapple with complex questions posed by the instructor.

Hubert developed novel curricula for an introductory biology course at OSU. He eventually co-authored the laboratory module that was published in American Biology Teacher—a peer-refereed professional journal designed to support the teaching of K-16 biology and life science.  Hubert currently teaches introductory biology courses as well as the upper division vertebrate biology course.

He volunteers in the classroom of the local juvenile detention center, where he works with teens to build their math and science skills. Hubert has also served as a mentor in the Mentoring Works! Program, helping at-risk middle school students transition into high school.

Perhaps his own teachers and mentors have something to do with his love for teaching. Hubert credits OSU biology lecturer, Lori Kayes and his advisor Robert Mason for serving as wonderful mentors and teachers, and being “instrumental in everything I have done.” Hubert was closely guided by Kayes in his role as a learning assistant for introductory biology courses during his undergraduate years at OSU.

A superbly taught vertebrate biology class by Mason planted the seeds for Hubert’s research project as well as fostered a love for the science of reptiles. When Mason offered him a spot in his lab for graduate research, Hubert didn’t hesitate to accept.

At OSU, Hubert found opportunities to do research on reproduction in salamanders in freshwater streams, behavioral work with crayfish, a study of coral growth and survival before finding his graduate research focus on terrestrial environments and garter snakes.

His award-winning NSF proposal “An Integrative View of Brumation in a Changing Environment” will employ molecular techniques to shed light on what genes are associated with hibernation (brumation) and investigate changes to allele frequencies, morphology and fecundity in populations of the common garter snake.

“My overall project is how the snakes survive sub-zero temperatures, and I am interested in a transcriptional level in how they are expressing their genes and how their genes are used in that huge block of time,” said Hubert.

Hubert will study the garter snakes in the world-famous snake caverns of the Interlake region of Manitoba, Canada. This is the site of an unrivaled biological phenomenon where tens of thousands of snakes hibernate for eight months in underground caves and emerge to engage in reproduction in the month of April.

Although the mating behavior among garter snakes is a well-studied phenomenon (Hubert’s advisor Mason has pioneered numerous studies on this model of garter snakes), Hubert’s research will investigate what happens during the distinct phase of brumation and how garter snakes respond to temperature changes as they transition from one life-cycle phase to another (brumation, breeding and feeding).

As it so happens, the effects of climate change in Manitoba have been particularly intense. The average heat increase in Manitoba has been twice the global average and the forecast is that Manitoba winters will be seven degrees warmer by mid-century. Its effects on garter snakes, whose life phases from hibernation to breeding are driven by temperature changes, are bound to be striking.

“Garter snakes are in a unique situation because they live in the northernmost parts of North America and experience extremes like no other species,” said Hubert.

His research will focus on the effects of climate change on garter snakes through genome-wide analyses and a study of the morphological traits and fecundity in the population over time.

From his maiden research trip to Manitoba with Mason and other researchers in April this year, Hubert will bring back garter snakes for hibernation in a temperature-controlled facility in an OSU lab for further study.

The father of 12-year-old and four-year-old boys, Hubert attributes his award to his unusual personal circumstances and their influence in making him the scientist he is today.

“When I dropped out of high school, I believed I didn’t have any other options, and it took me years of experiencing life and exploring different opportunities to understand that I could find success in higher education,” said Hubert.

A love for coral reefs and science

In the lab of her advisor Rebecca Vega Thurber, microbiology Ph.D. student Becca Maher studies how environmental stressors alter the coral host and its associated microbes. Maher, who graduated from Rice University in 2016, will soon be collaborating on a very interesting project in the Vega Thurber lab involving the study of coral microbiome at the Gump Research Station on Moorea, French Polynesia.

Maher will be traveling to Moorea this September for her first field season to conduct ecological experiments on the reef and microbial analyses along with a fellow scientist at UC Santa Barbara.

Her NSF project investigates how predation by parrotfish and elevated nutrient levels combine to affect coral microbiome and increase the rate of coral death.

“My project is exciting because we are investigating a phenomenon that has never been observed before.”

“Herbivores that supplement their diets by predating coral are usually benign to the coral in healthy reef systems. However, many reefs around the world are facing nutrient pollution from terrestrial sources like agricultural runoff. And when the water is enriched with nutrients, corals can no longer recover from fish predation, leading to total colony mortality,” explained Maher.

Maher, whose family has roots in Nicaragua, has participated in several “conservation projects involving eco-tourism and biodiversity monitoring in Latin America.” She has directed a year-long Engineers Without Borders project to modernize a water distribution system in Nicaragua, conducted marine research in Honduras, and studied the impact of endangered Capuchin monkeys on a cloud forest reserve in Ecuador.

“As I extend my fieldwork to new countries, I will prioritize attention on the unique cultural traditions and values of a particular community which can be an integral, fascinating and effective part of regional conservation,” said Maher.

Maher has many scientific accomplishments to her credit. She received the Shell Center’s Sustainable Development Award for effectively disseminating her research on coral reef conservation in the Gulf Coast. Her research on the impact of macrobioeroders (reef organisms) on coral reef health has pioneered new methods of investigation and generated novel datasets to be used in conserving deep sea coral reef health. Maher’s data is currently being incorporated into coral population models for publication with NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center.

Maher is a science communication fellow with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and will make marine science accessible to young museum-goers through hands-on interactive exhibits.

Unlocking the secrets of the African Buffalo

Claire Couch recently returned from an eight-month visit to Kruger National Park, one of South Africa’s largest game reserves with a reputation for being home to wonderfully diverse life forms. There she studied microbe and host disease associations in the African buffalo.

Along with fellow researchers from her adviser Anna Jolles’ lab in the Department of Integrative Biology, Couch would sedate the highly dangerous and large bovines in a herd with tranquilizer darts and collect blood and tissue samples. An intensive flurry of lab tests would help determine the sex, age, health, disease pathogens, nutritional status of the animal as well as yield other demographic and genetic data.

As part of her doctoral research, Couch will investigate the relationship between nasal microbiomes and respiratory disease in African buffalo. Her study will introduce novel ecological approaches to study microbe dispersal between hosts and how that affects microbiome composition and respiratory disease risk in the species.

The broader impact of her research, Couch explains, is to “find applications for monitoring and managing economically and ecological important respiratory disease, which could result in early detection and prevention of respiratory disease outbreaks.”

At Kruger National Park, Couch has undertaken a science outreach project to introduce school children to science careers. In partnership with an educational non-profit based in the Park, Couch organized a science career camp for a group of children interested in science.

“The children loved it and it was especially cool that they could go out in the field and get hands-on with the buffalo in a safe and monitored environment and also talk to veterinarians and other people in the park about their jobs,” said Couch.

She plans to continue on with educational outreach projects in the Park.

The University of Portland alumna is fascinated by disease ecology and has spent time in various labs associated with disease research, including a yearlong stint in an infectious disease laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Couch also received an ARCS Scholar Award from the ARCS Foundation Portland Chapter which helps recruit top applicants to Ph.D. programs in OSU’s Departments of biochemistry and biophysics, chemistry, mathematics, microbiology, statistics and integrative biology. In 2013, Couch was awarded the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, regarded as the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics in America.

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