Microbiology doctoral student Stephanie Rosales is spending two months in Nepal (March-April 2016) on an NSF Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP). This program is exclusively for recipients of the prestigious and competitive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program award, which Rosales received four years ago. GRIP provides professional development to NSF Fellows through mission related research experiences with federal agencies.
Rosales received training at the Smithsonian Institute in protocols for testing and diagnosing the herpesvirus in elephants. She will visit Chitwan National Park to examine trunk wash samples from elephants to identify possible cases of the herpes virus and then conduct laboratory research in Kathmandu.
"I am a wildlife enthusiast and I really enjoy trying to understand diseases in large animals, especially the ones caused by viruses," said Rosales.
According to USDA, elephant herpesvirus is a growing threat to the health of captive Asian elephants and if left untreated the infection will result in death within one week of the onset of symptoms. Read Rosales' blog on her experiences in Nepal.
Arriving from Guatemala at the age of three, Rosales has overcome many personal and economic struggles on her path to higher education. When she was 20, Rosales was about to be deported when a kindly judge in Florida halted her deportation so that she would be able to continue her studies. Fortunately for Rosales and her family, her parents too were granted amnesty because they have a son who was born in the United States and was a minor at the time.
"I didn't have my papers until I was in my early twenties. I never qualified for financial aid or loans. So I had to work and pay for college. My parents were just making enough to support themselves," said Rosales, who was initially enrolled in a community college in Miami-Dade.
Rosales was subsequently able to gain legal status, which opened up a new world of educational opportunities for her. She received financial aid and was able to secure educational loans that helped her to transfer to Florida International University (FIU) where she majored in marine biology.
A first-generation college graduate, Rosales has come into her own as a scientist. She recently published a paper, along with her advisor, Rebecca Vega Thurber, proving that the puzzling and widely covered 2009 deaths of seven harbor seals in California was related to the presence of high levels of the bacterial pathogen Burkholderia that was found in the brains of the seals. Rosales employed metatranscriptomics (a method that enables researchers to explore microbial interactions by studying their ribosomal and messenger RNA) to establish her findings.
For the final stage of her research, Rosales hopes to determine how exactly Burkholderia caused the deaths of the seals. She is studying the genes of the animals to determine if the bacteria transformed them causing a fatal metabolic disorder.
Rosales observes that her evolution as a scientist would not have been the same without her advisor's support and mentorship. Rosales' close association with her advisor, microbiology assistant professor Vega Thurber dates back to her undergraduate days at FIU. After arriving at FIU, Rosales became the first undergraduate researcher in Vega Thurber's lab, who was a young biology professor there.
When Vega Thurber moved to Oregon State, she was joined by Rosales, who had completed her undergraduate degree and planned to extend her research in marine biology. "I became her lab tech, her lab manager and eventually her doctoral student," laughs Rosales.
Reflecting on her career in science and her accomplishments, Rosales said she is grateful to her parents and her advisor who have always supported her career. "My journey has been the result of a lot of hard work and having good people around me."