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Sean Trobaugh in front of research poster

Science scholarship enables biology senior to expand marine science research

By Mary Hare
Sean Trobaugh and his marine biology research

Recent biology graduate Sean Trobaugh (’18) hasn’t had a typical college experience. That’s why his marine biology research is all the more impressive.

Although he was accepted to Oregon State University out of high school, monetary constraints forced him to defer his admission. Sean worked and attended community college until he was 25 years old. He continued to work 30 hours a week while fully enrolled at OSU. But that didn’t stop the determined senior from working towards his academic goals. This summer Sean was chosen for the SURE Scienceaward to continue and expand his marine research. Over the past year, Sean has been studying the symbiotic relationship between algae and their anemone hosts, and the broader impact this has on our ocean at large.

Since he was a child, Sean has loved the ocean and been fascinated by the mysteries of the biosphere, particularly sharks and sea turtles. He decided to attend Oregon State because of its highly ranked marine biology program, and hasn’t looked back.

Sean’s interest in coral studies was sparked in spring 2017 when he spent a term at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, a requirement for all students with the marine biology option. When he returned to OSU that summer, he was offered a job opportunity researching anemones in the lab of Professor Virginia Weis for class credits.

It was in the Weis Lab where he first heard about the SURE Science grant, and discovered it was possible to receive the scholarship on top of credit.

“The SURE Science award did quite a few things for me,” Sean explained. “It gave me an actual taste of research, and showed what it’s going to be like in the future, which is where I want to go. It gave me more of a drive for research, because it was interesting and challenged me.”

The scholarship money also enabled Trobaugh to take a leave of absence from his job at the retail chain Fred Meyers and devote his full attention to research and doing it right.

Sea anemones are useful to study for a variety of reasons, in part because they can be used as a model for the symbiotic relationship that forms between coral and green algae. In the wild, algae lives inside the cells of the anemone and provides energy from photosynthesis in exchange for protection and exposure to sunlight.

Sean’s work in the Weis Lab was originally limited to collecting data on the food intake and growth of the anemones, with respect to the presence of algae, but after Sean received the SURE Science award, Weis expanded the scope to include NF Kappa B research as well.

NF Kappa B is a protein complex that regulates the immune system response in nearly all living organisms.

In a healthy anemone, the immune system response is lower, hence it will not perceive the algae as a threat and reject it. In the wild, anemones live in areas that are heavily influenced by tides and ocean currents. They may often go days without feeding, since a food source they depend on may not be present for long periods of time. Sean measured the effects of different feeding patterns on the NF Kappa B levels, with respect to the presence of the symbiotic relationship.

The research team determined from the results that the size of the anemones is affected by symbiotic state as well as the feeding, however the population size was only affected by feeding. They found that there were the same number of anemones regardless of whether they were symbiotic or not, but the bleached anemones were much smaller and less healthy than those who were exposed to algae.

They also collected data on oxygen production, which confirmed previous findings that coral reefs absorb more CO2 from the air than they emit, making them a significant factor in reining in the damage caused by climate change.

This fall Sean is continuing his experiments in the Weis Lab, and will be performing a second anemone treatment to verify the data collected over the summer.

When Sean is not at school, working, or doing research, he is a passionate scuba diver. He has a research certification and is a member of OSU’s research dive team. He has spent many summers earning money as an assistant scuba diving instructor for the Scouts program.

Sean graduated this December, and will walk in the spring. He is excited to continue on to get his master’s degree and then a Ph.D., potentially while continuing his research with Weis.

Also read: Science student and basketball star studies resources for homeless populations

Nearly 40 students win 2018 SURE Science awards