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Grace Deitzler working with microscope in lab

2020 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships awarded to alumni and students

By Srila Nayak

Microbiology Ph.D. student Grace Deitzler, a member of Dr. Maude David's lab, was awarded the 2020 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Two Ph.D. students in the College of Science — Grace Deitzler in microbiology and John Stepanek in integrative biology — are among three OSU students to receive prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awards in 2020.

Additionally, six College of Science alumni were also selected for the award this year. They are: Patrick Flynn (Mathematics ’18), a Ph.D. student of applied mathematics at Brown University; Katelyn Chase (Physics ’18), a quantitative and computational biology Ph.D. student at Princeton University; Gregory Mirek Brandt (Physics, Mathematics ’18), a Ph.D. student of astrophysics at the University of California Santa Barbara; Alyssa Adler (Marine Biology ’12), a recipient of the National Geographic Early Career Grant and an underwater videographer with Lindbald Expeditions; Joseph Kincaid (Chemistry ’18), an organic chemistry Ph.D. student at UC Santa Barbara; and Alena Vasquez (Chemistry ’18), a doctoral student in chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute.

In 2020, NSF offered a total of 2,076 awards to students from a competitive pool of 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. GRFP Fellows also have access to a number of unique opportunities during their tenure, including the opportunity to engage in international research collaboration.

Deitzler’s award-winning research project focuses on the honey bee gut microbiome and its role in health and immunity as a way to conserve declining honey bee populations. Using a combination of comparative genomics and field experiments, Deitzler and her mentors investigate the effects of a parasitic infection, Nosema ceranae, on the honey bee gut microbiome and the co-diversification patterns and interactions of host and pathogen in the honey bee microbiota. Further, the proposed study will examine the impact that probiotics have on the gut microbiome and whether this supplementation can alter immune response and survival during infection. Deitzler works on this project with her advisor Maude David, an assistant professor of microbiology, and Ramesh Sagili in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Deitzler joined OSU in 2018 after completing her undergraduate studies in biological sciences at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. As an undergraduate student, she worked on vaginal microbiome research at the Center for Women’s Infectious Disease Research in the lab of Dr. Amanda Lewis at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “It was during this internship that I developed an interest in microbiology, studying the microbial causes of bacterial vaginosis and microbial contributions to poor health outcomes in pregnancy,” said Deitzler. She worked on the project over the course of three summers, and the research resulted in identifying novel strains and genome sequences as well as four articles in the journal Genome Announcements. After graduation, Deitzler worked full-time in the Lewis Lab as a research technician before pursuing her doctoral studies.

In the David Lab at OSU, Deitzler also conducts research on the gut microbiome to better understand its impact on autism spectrum disorder. She studies a mouse model of the gut-brain axis to analyze microbiome composition and its relationship with behavior.

Passionate about science communication, Deitzler is the president and a co-founder of Seminarium, an OSU student club dedicated to exploring the connections between arts and science and bringing this intersection to a broader audience. She is also actively involved in organizing outreach events on campus and within Corvallis.

John Stepanek standing in front of shrubbery

John Stepanek, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Integrative Biology, was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Stepanek is a dedicated and passionate climate activist. As an Oregon Climate Fellow in 2019, Stepanek organized and collaborated with students at OSU and in Corvallis high schools to get them involved in passing scientifically sound and socially just climate change legislation. In that role he also worked with state legislators in an attempt to pass carbon emissions reduction legislation. Closely aligned with his environmental advocacy, his research as a Ph.D. student of integrative biology revolves around ocean ecosystems and the effects of climate change.

The NSF fellowship will support his research measuring the carbon sequestration capacity of coastal sand dunes and the combined effects of invasive species of beachgrass and climate change on carbon storage in dune ecosystems.

“Climate-driven shifts in the abundance and distribution of each grass species, along with sea level rise and increased storm wave erosion, could alter the carbon stock and sequestration capacity of Pacific Northwest dunes,” says Stepanek, who works in the lab of Sally Hacker, professor of integrative biology.

His career in climate-related ecology began as an undergraduate student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. There he studied the effects of climate change on thermoregulatory function in lizards and rattlesnakes, conducting field research in San Luis Obispo, the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert and the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. At Cal Poly, he also worked on a project to track tree biodiversity in California.

In collaboration with Hacker and other researchers, Stepanek has undertaken NOAA-funded field research in the Outer Banks of North Carolina to investigate how sea level rise and increasing tropical storm intensity affects response and recovery of dune systems, which are critical for protecting people and property from the worst of these storms.

Stepanek has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a pivotal experience in forming his ecological consciousness and his research career. “I saw more forms of life in four months than most people get to see in a lifetime, but I also witnessed firsthand the destruction that climate change threatens us with in the form of desert droughts, bark beetle infestations, glacial melting and massive forest fires,” remarked Stepanek.

Among other outreach and volunteer activities, Stepanek helped start a chapter of Sunrise Movementa youth-led climate advocacy organization — in Corvallis and has since organized five climate marches with local high schools and faith communities to demand city action on climate change. With the NSF fellowship support, Stepanek plans to dedicate more time to environmental outreach endeavors, increase visibility for his research and give local students more opportunities to participate in science.

The NSF GRFP is the country’s oldest fellowship program that directly supports graduate students in various science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The awards recognize outstanding graduate students in STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. NSF Fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.