By Lee Anna Sherman
When manatees and alligators are members of your backyard ecosystem, it’s like living with a ready-made science project. Justin Conner took full advantage of the biodiversity bursting in and around the Florida canal that linked his childhood home to the ocean. There were peacock bass and cichlids to hook. There were frogs and toads to collect. There were black racers and corn snakes to stalk beneath the dense, tropical foliage.
The curious little boy was boggled by the biology of it all.
“I was always out in nature catching stuff,” says Oregon State zoology student Justin Conner. “I always liked creepy and crawly — little tiny lizards, frogs, baby toads, snakes. I had just a plethora of reptile and amphibian pets. It was a mini-zoo in a 20-gallon tank. My mom was not too supportive of that.”
One day when he was 8 or 9, he was sitting in the living room riveted to Animal Planet, his favorite show.
The episode showed a guy milking snakes for venom. When the man on camera was identified as a “herpetologist,” Justin jumped up and rushed to the computer. H-e-r-p-e-t-o-l-o-g-i-s-t, he Googled. That’s the moment this child with an innate affinity for cold-blooded organisms (ectotherms) discovered there’s an actual job description for people like him. “I realized I could do this for a living!” Conner marvels. Which is what brought him to Oregon State after he investigated universities with excellent zoology and ecology programs.
But “herps” aren’t Conner’s only passion. His other big cause is bringing minority students like himself into the sciences. “I’m an activist,” he declares. He recently launched a club on campus called CAMS — Council for the Advancement of Minorities in Science — to connect students of color to mentors, research opportunities and professional development.
He wants to help propel African Americans and other minorities in the same spirit in which scientist Tyrone Hayes helped propel Conner’s trajectory at OSU. Hayes, an amphibian researcher at UC Berkeley, was in Corvallis to address the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a program for boosting minority completion of degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. After the keynote, Conner and some of his buddies wangled an audience with the high-profile scientist in the Memorial Union ballroom. Conner had been trying unsuccessfully to reach OSU’s prominent frog scientist Andy Blaustein. He asked Hayes for advice on getting Blaustein’s attention.
“I happen to know Andy Blaustein,” Hayes responded. “I’ll tell him you’re my cousin and you’re looking for a job in his lab.”
The ruse worked. Conner (who confessed the deception to Blaustein as soon as they met face-to-face) spent a summer researching “Bd” — Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a chytrid fungus that is decimating frog populations worldwide. When he was knee deep in a pond one morning, collecting egg masses and swabbing frogs for signs of the fungus, he heard a gurgling sound in his rubber boots. “Turns out I had holes in my waders,” he says. “My feet got cold. But we saw tons of tadpoles!”
He also worked on a collaborative project with the University of Pittsburgh, looking at the effects of carotenoids (plant pigments that are sources of vitamin A and antioxidants) on three species of frogs. “Amphibians are crashing at an astronomical rate,” laments Conner, who intends to study the threatened animals in tropical countries like Costa Rica after getting his Ph.D. “About 70 percent of species are threatened or endangered.”
After he presented his poster, “The Effect of Carotenoid Supplementation on Disease Susceptibility in Amphibians,” at a professional meeting at Boise State, Conner received a scholarship to present at Arizona State, where he won first place for undergraduate research. “My poster’s my pride and joy,” he says, adding gratitude for grad student Stephanie Gervasi and others who guided him. “I had so much help. I’m thankful for the people who helped.”