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Holland Elder standing in front of tree

PhD students receive prestigious NSF awards to address global challenges

By Srila Nayak

Holland Elder, PhD student, Department of Integrative Biology

Integrative Biology doctoral students Holland Elder and Caroline Glidden have both received the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) 2015 awards. Elder and Glidden are among two of 11 students at Oregon State who received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship this year.

The highly competitive and coveted NSF GRFP awards went to 2,000 individuals from among 16,500 applicants in 2015. Established in 1952, the NSF GRF Program recognizes and supports outstanding master’s and doctoral students in STEM disciplines at accredited United States institutions.

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) for graduate study that leads to a research-based master's or doctoral degree in science or engineering.

Glidden also received an ARCS Scholar Award from the ARCS Foundation Portland Chapter which helps recruit top applicants to PhD programs in OSU's departments of biochemistry and biophysics, chemistry, mathematics, microbiology, statistics and integrative biology. The award is $18,000, payable over three years.

Although Elder and Gladden—both in the Department of Integrative Biology—are beginning their second year of doctoral studies and look forward to dedicating more time to their research thanks to the GRFP’s generous financial support, that’s where the similarities end.

Glidden focuses on conservation science in South Africa where she spent the summer, and Elder recently returned from Panama, where she conducted research on coral reefs at the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation.

“I love teaching but it can be difficult to balance the teaching with a research and full time class schedule. The GRFP award is one of the most prestigious awards and one of the most helpful to graduate students,” said Elder.

The additional time will allow Glidden to pursue a statistics minor alongside her biological research. Glidden was awarded the NSF fellowship to study the heterogeneity of immune response to hemoparasites in African buffalo, specifically how nutritional variability influences variation in disease resistance and tolerance and the implications for disease super-spreading. She spent part of her summer collecting data on foot and mouth disease in the African buffalo in Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. She raised money to buy books for about 400 nearby schools. Glidden's work in South Africa this summer involved this research supported by a grant of her advisor's--Associate Professor Anna Jolles--exploring foot and mouth disease. Jolles studies tuberculosis in African buffalos, including individual as well as population-wide effects of TB co-infection with gastrointestinal parasites.

Glidden’s mother grew up in South Africa and she feels very much at home in the country. She is eager to return for a year-long research trip in 2016 to conduct more data collection and field work for her doctoral studies.

Glidden’s personal and research experiences in South Africa have inspired her to bring conservation science to school children in the country. In 2014, she started her own conservation non-profit organization called the “Diana Education Conservation Fund” which seeks to distribute books on conservation issues in South African schools to raise awareness. Glidden was able to raise money to distribute 100 copies of Charlotte’s Web and Dowlina—a book on rhino poaching based on actual events—to four South African schools. She was also able to persuade the author of Dowlina to visit the school and share the true story and pictures of a rescued South African rhino.

Glidden has more ambitious plans for her South African outreach program in the future, and she hopes to make lasting educational changes among young South Africans.

“Next year I will organize a teacher training workshop to develop a conservation environmental education curriculum for younger school children,” said Glidden.

While Glidden focuses on conservation education in South Africa, Holland Elder will use the GRFP award to study the genomic basis of thermal tolerance in corals. She has focused her research on the disturbing global phenomenon of coral bleaching in steamy temperatures, whereby corals lose their brilliant colors when they reach their tolerance limit for warmer temperatures. As part of her doctoral research, Elder will sequence the genotype of individual coral samples to look for genomic differences between the corals that pale and the ones that do not.

Elder grew up near oceans in Washington and California and fell in love with sea creatures and marine biology early on. Even so, it would take some years after finishing high school before Elder could study science again.

Trained in ballet since the age of 8, Elder chose to pursue a career as a professional dancer after high school. However, an injury at 21 ended her career as a ballerina, bringing her back to academics and rekindling her passion for biology. Nonetheless, she found herself facing hurdles on her path toward becoming a biology major.

Elder began her college career at a community college in San Marcos, California, where her advisors actively discouraged her from studying science.

“Because there was a chunk of time when I wasn’t in school, my advisors thought there was no way I would be able to handle a biology major. They told me 'you won’t be able to do it. There is too much math and chemistry,'” said Elder.

Elder conceded and studied classical literature—her other passion—for a year. But she still yearned to study science and knew literature wasn’t what she wanted to pursue. On a whim, she enrolled in an oceanography class, which was the turning point in her college career. Elder was captivated when the professor brought in a coral core to the classroom one day to show layers of coral growth over time.

I remember taking it apart with tweezers and thinking, “Oh my god, this is it! I have been doing the wrong thing my entire life. I need to do this. I don’t care what the advisors say,” said Elder.

Elder’s persistence paid off. She eventually earned her degree in biology from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where she worked on a thesis on thermal tolerance of limpets—an aquatic snail with a conical shell. A fortuitous meeting with Oregon State biology professor Eli Meyer at a conference, while Elder was on the verge of finishing her undergraduate studies at Cal Poly, opened up further academic avenues for her.

Elder was intrigued by Meyer’s research on thermal tolerance in corals and after exploring OSU’s Integrative Biology program decided that it would be the right fit for her.

“OSU Integrative Biology was my top choice because there is a great cluster of cnidarian biologists here. Resources at OSU were the best for what I wanted to do.”

Elder, who is currently a second year doctoral student in Meyer’s lab, keeps a busy schedule and she excitedly lists her numerous marine biology projects. She is part of a team that maintains her lab’s coral accessions. A collection of anemones that she amassed last year as part of a project while on a road trip through California, Washington and Oregon are thriving and will soon be part of a spawning experiment. Her enthusiasm about her upcoming experiment is evident.

“Nobody has the spawning patterns down exactly and nobody has got the anemones to develop in the lab from egg and sperm all the way to adult,” remarks Elder.

Elder’s journey from her hesitant forays into science at a community college to winning the National Science Foundation’s GRF award as a budding marine biologist is both exceptional and inspiring.

“I look back and I think it was a lot of really hard work and then happening to be in the right place at the right time. Above all, I enjoy my work every day. Every day I wake up and get to see something new, something no one else has ever seen,” said Elder.