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Blue whale tail peering out of ocean surface

From Free Willy to blue whale necroscopy

By Debbie Farris

Whale watching in the pacific

“I was a typical troublemaker as a kid. So my mom would send me to my room and put on the movie Free Willy. It calmed me, and I sat mesmerized and watched.”

Since then Alex Carbaugh-Rutland has been fascinated by killer whales and thoroughly hooked on science. The senior from Sacramento, Calif., is graduating with a bachelor of science degree in zoology after studying marine mammal acoustics throughout his undergraduate education in the College of Science.

Though killer whales first captured his imagination, he moved on to dolphins, humpback whales, harbor seals and frogs.

“I love marine biology, but I don’t love all biology,” admits Alex. After struggling through some core science courses his freshmen year, he found that research really ignited his passion for science.

“Doing undergraduate research gives you passion and drive. It motivates you to study.”

Alex strongly encourages beginning zoology students to participate in research. First figure out a way to study a species, he advises, then pick a mammal. He attributes studying frogs his freshmen year and humpback whale calls his sophomore with getting him through foundational classroom courses, like General Biology, General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry and other core courses.

“Being out on the water, on a boat, catching sharks was such a fun, positive experience. I knew this was what I wanted to do,” said Alex, describing his time studying shark behavior one summer at California State University, Long Beach.

He praises his many mentors for his academic success.

“My mom has always been supportive. She started out studying marine science in college but switched to communications,” said Alex.

His parents supported his love of whales and sharks, even flying him to hear about research and giving him a trip to the San Juan Islands as a high school graduation present. “They somehow found a way to make things happen.”

LSAMP, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, provided strong mentorship and support for Alex at OSU.

“I was not a straight A student so sometimes you don’t get a lot of encouragement.” Alex credits LSAMP with helping him find his way at Oregon State and in science. LSAMP offered him with a strong community to stay on track academically and a strong social network.

“The LSAMP program changed my life. It opened so many doors, especially as an out-of-state student. It is a supportive group of people. [LSAMP Director] Marleigh Perez is like my mom on campus. She really takes her students in.”

LSAMP is dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of traditionally underrepresented students successfully completing science and engineering bachelor’s degrees. Students receive financial, academic, social, and professional support to ensure their academic and professional success.

When OSU Marine Mammal Institute Director Bruce Mate met Perez at an event, he mentioned needing students to help him with his blue whale necroscopy research. Perez then contacted Alex.

That connection led Alex to Mate, who has conducted marine mammal research since 1967. Mate shared his expertise and provided mentoring and coaching to Alex ever since that necroscopy research.

In addition to research, LSAMP helped Alex get his priorities in order to facilitate his success in and out of the classroom. He also lauds his LSAMP mentor Justin Conner (Zoology, ’15).

“LSAMP taught me to put my passion first, then partying. That order, those steps are so important,” stresses Alex. “I tell beginning students this all the time. I see students get lost because they put partying over finding and cultivating their passion.”

But science was not his only passion. Alex wanted to play college basketball, a sport he excelled at in high school.

“I learned more about myself through basketball than anything else.” A reserve basketball player for the Beavers for one year, Alex was cut after open tryouts. The experience helped him realize that his favorite sport provided more of a distraction than a future as his grades suffered. He chose to focus on science instead of hoops.

“One of the most important decisions I made was that I would focus on school, not on basketball. I was not going to be distracted.”

With his sights set on a Ph.D. program in fall 2017, Alex is anything but distracted. He plans to study marine mammal acoustics, specifically how noise pollution affects blue whales who can communicate miles across the ocean.

“I want to do great science, but I want to share it with the world so they will be passionate about protecting our marine mammals and marine ecosystem, too.”

In classic Beaver humility, Alex lays it on the line.

“It might seem like I am this great student. I’ve done research, had great experiences, been a leader and even had lunch with the dean. But my grades are not exemplary. I have distractions and don’t always make the best decisions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have passion. Through my persistence, attitude and passion, people gave me incredible opportunities.”

“Only a small percentage of students have a 3.7, 3.8, 4.0 GPA,” adds Alex. “I don’t want students to get discouraged, but stay true to their passion and work hard.”