Marine ecologist and associate professor Rebecca Vega Thurber has been appointed the Emile F. Pernot Distinguished Professor in Microbiology by the Colleges of Science and Agricultural Science at Oregon State University. The endowed professorship recognizes Vega Thurber’s distinguished contributions to several fields of microbiology that encompass coral reef ecology, virology, marine disease ecology and metagenomics. Vega Thurber’s lab investigates the microbial and viral ecology of threatened marine species and habitats.
“Rebecca works on some of the most challenging environmental problems of our era, and she has trained and inspired young scientists to make vital contributions to protect our fragile ecosystems” — Dean Roy Haggerty.
The Emile F. Pernot Professorship was established with an estate gift of the late Mabel Pernot, the daughter of Emile Pernot who established the microbiology department at Oregon State more than a century ago. The award recognizes a professor in the Department of Microbiology who has made distinguished contributions to the field of microbiology science and who has a record of contributions to OSU’s education and research missions.
“Rebecca Vega Thurber’s outstanding scholarship and contributions to STEM education perfectly capture the spirit and goals of the prestigious Emile Pernot Professorship,” said Dean Roy Haggerty. “Rebecca works on some of the most challenging environmental problems of our era, and she has trained and inspired young scientists to make vital contributions to protect our fragile ecosystems.”
Among other areas, Vega Thurber’s research has probed the effects of environmental and human-associated pollution on the relationships among the microbiomes and their hosts and habitats. Vega Thurber’s three-year field experiment on a coral reef in the Florida Keys—one of the largest and longest field experiments done on this topic—found evidence that overfishing, pollution and climate change-induced warming waters intersect to cause coral disease and death. She found out that herbivorous fish not only help increase healthy microbes on corals, but they also appeared to buffer some of the negative effects of ocean warming and thermal stress on corals.
“The Pernot Professorship is a great honor and a testament also to the excellence and vision of the work my lab and my colleagues have been doing. I look forward to using this position to expand our understanding of marine microbiomes and their roles in threatened ecosystems,” said Vega Thurber. “I also hope to push further our goals in advancing equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM education, and I plan to use aspects of this award to increase awareness of the threats that ecosystem declines have on local and native communities and cultures.”
Vega Thurber’s exceptional leadership, vision and pioneering scholarship have shaped and influenced some of the most cutting-edge coral health and marine virology projects in the world. She is the director of the Global Coral Microbiome Project (GCMP) dedicated to understanding the microbial diversity of coral species across all major groups of reef-building corals in several distinct ecosystems across the globe. The project probes genome sequences of key coral bacteria and investigates how the microbiome plays a role in disease within coral species.
Her work with this project formed the basis of “Saving Atlantis,” the Oregon State feature-length documentary on coral reefs. The film follows Thurber and her colleagues in four continents as they uncover the causes behind the destruction of coral reef ecosystems and work to find solutions to protect them. “Saving Atlantis” screened at various film festivals in the U.S. and abroad and is now streaming and accessible to viewers worldwide on Amazon, Google Play and iTunes.