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Graduate students, alumni win national fellowships for outstanding research

The College of Science congratulates two Ph.D. students for receiving prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) awards for 2018. Rebecca Mostow in integrative biology and Julia (Grace) Klinges in microbiology are among 10 students at Oregon State University to receive NSF graduate research fellowships this year.

In addition, two recent alumni from the College of Science have also won the award this year:  Trevor Shear (Chemistry, ‘16), now at the University of Oregon, and Jeanne Marie Klein-Gordon (Microbiology, ‘16), currently at the University of Florida.

Mostow’s award-winning research project will focus on unearthing the mechanisms of hybridization that underlie beachgrass invasion and proliferation on the U.S. Pacific Northwest coast. Klinges’ will use her fellowship to determine the mechanisms of disease transmission and development in the critically endangered staghorn coral (Acropora Cerviconis), a crucial reef-building coral.

This year, NSF offered 2,000 fellowship awards to students from a competitive pool of 12,000 applicants from all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. The GRFP provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period — $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution. That support is for graduate study that leads to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in a STEM field.

Avid naturalist studies invasive plant species in coastal ecosystems

A teaching assistant for her advisor Dr. Sally Hacker‘s marine biology class, Mostow was at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport with her students when she received news of her selection as an NSF graduate fellow. “I was shocked and thrilled at the news. It felt like winning a lottery to me,” recalls Mostow.

Integrative biology doctoral student Rebecca Mostow.

In the Department of Integrative Biology, Mostow pursues research in the multiple fields of coastal ecology, quantitative genetic techniques and genomic library building. Working with Hacker, Mostow is examining the impact of species’ ecological and genetic interactions on coastal ecosystem management in Washington and northern Oregon. She will conduct genomic experiments and utilize Next Generation sequencing techniques to study the effects of a potential beachgrass hybrid on the parent population, dune morphology and native plant populations.

Through her project, Mostow aims to bridge the distinct fields of community ecology and population genomics. Her novel use of genotyping to study plant hybridization “is applicable to countless systems threatened by invaders with a high risk of hybridization.”

According to Mostow, “With an improved understanding of the mechanisms controlling biological invasion, we can more effectively respond to this global threat.”

She also works in the lab of Eli Meyer, an assistant professor of biology, on various population genomics projects pertaining to her study of dune morphology and ecology.

“Integrative biology is a very special place. I am able to do the type of interdisciplinary research that I am interested in because of the professors who work in the program. I have been able to build these great mentoring relationships in different fields,” Mostow said.

After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio in 2013 with a degree in biology, Mostow, who grew up in Seattle, embarked on a career of ecological monitoring and restoration fieldwork as well as science teaching and outreach for three years. She worked with seabird monitoring in Southeast Alaska, followed by a year working for the Bureau of Land Management in Carson City, Nevada, as a Chicago Botanic Garden Conservation and Land Management Intern.

Everywhere she went, Mostow observed how landscapes and ecosystems had been affected and altered by non-native plants. She quickly became interested in the relationship between invasive organisms and the environment which brought her to Hacker’s Lab.

As a budding ecologist and field researcher, she was “regularly reminded that she did not fit the expected model of a research scientist or land manager.” After Oberlin, when Mostow entered the intersecting arenas of field biology and government agencies, she found herself in a male-dominated world where she had to effectively communicate scientific findings to different audiences and stakeholders.

“I learned how to be the only woman in the room and the only Jew for a hundred miles. When ranchers, fishermen or bureaucrats underestimated me, I learned to listen compassionately, find common ground and believe in my own abilities. I am adept at navigating the interface between science and management, a skill that has come in handy as I develop partnerships with local land management agencies.”

Mostow led hands-on educational programs to K-12 students as an AmeriCorps marine exhibit educator at Port Townsend Marine Science Center in Washington state and worked as an environmental educator for YMCA in Longbranch, Washingon, where among other things she developed and designed curriculum for a plant ecology course.

Her experiences with communicating science to young audiences made a deep impact on her and, in addition to research, she intends to use her time as an NSF Fellow to continue student outreach activities, build community and create exciting and engaging science curricula.

“I love the ability to empower young kids to think like investigators and scientists, and show them how thinking like a scientist can take you in a lot of different directions. Being engaged with your environment makes you more thoughtful and inquisitive about it.”

“Becoming an educator made me a way better naturalist,” she observed.

Mostow has also received the Provost’s Distinguished Graduate Fellowship at OSU and the Young Botanist Award from the Botanical Society of America.

Investigating coral disease

Only in her second year of graduate school, Klinges’ research on corals has taken her to far-flung parts of the world—the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, France and Taiwan. In the coming months, her research on microbial and coral diversity will take her to Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands. In fact, it was during her research trip in Taiwan that Klinges learned about her NSF award.

A student in internationally renowned coral microbiologist Rebecca Vega Thurber’s Lab, Klinges studies the bacterium that is believed to be the agent of white band disease destroying the rare staghorn coral, and will attempt to determine whether the microbe is stimulated by nutrient pollution. Klinges’ doctoral research expands on one of the largest experiments done by Vega Thurber and her collaborators which saw a three-year controlled exposure of corals to elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus at a study site in the Florida Keys.

Microbiology doctoral student Grace Klinges. Photo by Johnathan Lancelot, Tara Expeditions Foundation.

Keen on applying bioinformatics to a data set, Klinges was introduced to a bacterial sample from the Florida Keys experiment by her advisor. She was asked to sequence it through the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing (CGRB) on campus in an effort to assemble the genome of the bacteria. Klinges followed through with impressive results.

“Normally it is difficult to assemble a genome from an environmental sample. You need a pure culture. But I got a complete genome from the sample,” said Klinges who conducted genomic and phylogenetic analysis on the bacteria to trace its relation to other species.

Klinges has discovered a new genus of bacteria not known or studied before. She has named the new genus Marinoinvertebrata because the bacteria inhabit marine invertebrates, primarily corals and sponges. Klinges is carrying out further computational analyses to fully characterize its genes. Her report is currently being prepared for publication in a microbiology journal.

The NSF Fellowship will help her to kick-off the experimental or in-vivo part of her research to further explore the bacterium’s mechanisms of transmission and disease development and determine its role as an agent of white band disease. Through coral exposure experiments, genome sequencing and nitrogen isotope studies, Klinges will investigate if the bacterium is found in the healthy coral microbiome and can turn virulent due to other environmental factors, and if weakened host immune function caused by nutrient pollution makes corals more vulnerable to disease.

The implications and potential consequences of Klinges’ research are significant as they will aid in the preservation of coral reef ecosystems and could help in the treatment and prevention of white band disease as well as recovery of healthy corals. “Our ability to directly alter host-microbe interactions using nutrient enrichment provides a reliable model to ascertain which genes play a role in disease initiation and host response,” said Klinges.

“Beyond its implications for coral disease, the opportunity to reconstruct the genome of a novel pathogen is rare and may uncover new mechanisms of transmission, especially when this pathogen is traced through different regions and coral hosts.”

Klinges has been passionate about research since she was an undergraduate student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania where she studied geology and biology. For her undergraduate thesis, she studied the impact of contamination by hydraulic fracturing fluid on freshwater bacteria. The project resulted in multiple journal publications.

Grace Klinges collecting video footage to construct a 3D model of a reef affected by carbon dioxide seepage. Photo by Rebecca Vega Thurber.

After graduation, Klinges was awarded a prestigious fellowship at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This fellowship, funded by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, helped her pursue both public policy and scientific research. Among other contributions at EPA, she pursued research on bioremediation and supported agency work on new strategies for groundwater cleanup at Superfund sites and created an R-based statistical model relating lead cleanup level to site cleanup cost.

Interested in graduate school, Klinges searched for a program that would allow her to combine her interests in both geology and microbiology. She discovered Vega Thurber’s Lab at OSU where she could become a certified scuba diver and perform research underwater on corals combining her interests in marine biology, geochemistry and disease ecology. Along with her advisor, Klinges is also involved with TARA Pacific, an international collaboration of scientists working on the schooner Tara to compare the diverse reef communities of the Pacific Ocean.

Despite having no prior computer programming experience, Klinges learned Bash, Python and Perl programming languages through courses at the CGRB. She developed a computational pipeline for the analysis of raw DNA sequence data from the Tara Pacific expedition which will be used as the standard analysis method for the Tara Pacific and Tara Oceans datasets. She plans to acquire a minor in biological data sciences in addition to her Ph.D. in microbiology.

During a Tara research trip in Papua New Guinea, Klinges became interested in investigating the response of the coral microbiome to carbon dioxide seeps in the Pacific waters. The youngest scientist on the research vessel, Klinges received special permission from the Tara scientific chair to carry out her own project. She will analyze microbes from Pacific corals to determine whether they “possess the same virulence genes as their relatives in the Caribbean, and phylogenetic comparison of these species of bacteria may help put a relative date on the initiation of white band disease in the Caribbean.”

Klinges has been awarded the Provost’s Distinguished Graduate Fellowship at OSU and has twice received the President’s Commission on the Status of Women Travel Award at OSU which enabled her to attend the Tara Pacific data analysis and research workshops in France.

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