Healthy Planet Marine Studies Initiative Student Research

Understanding Tropical Reefs

If a last-minute decision led McMinds to Miami where he fell for corals, it was fate that brought him back to Oregon State.

Ryan McMinds at the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s northwest coast (Photo: David Baker)

By David Baker

All signs pointed to Ryan McMinds attending Oregon State University as an undergraduate. Both of his parents graduated from OSU, and he grew up just down the road in Jefferson, Oregon. It was always his default choice.

“But at the last minute, I decided that I needed to travel and go somewhere warm,” McMinds says. So he attended the University of Miami, which has a strong tropical marine studies program, and he found a new home. “It’s a whole culture of marine science nerds. I just loved it and wanted to stay in it.”

McMinds was fascinated by the layered diversity and mystery of the ocean’s evolutionary biology. His research interests took him to the Galapagos Islands, the South Pacific and beyond. He soon became hooked on the tropics and the corals that he found there.

A Twist of Fate

If a last-minute decision led McMinds to Miami where he fell for corals, it was fate that brought him back to Oregon State. McMinds is now a Ph.D. student in the College of Science studying coral reef microbes — despite the fact that Oregon’s coastal environment is too cold to support the systems where they are found.

Rebecca Vega-Thurber, an assistant professor in microbiology, needed someone for her new lab in Oregon, someone she could trust to send around the world to collect vital reef data. She was impressed by McMinds’ breadth of research experience and his globetrotting curiosity.

“I was so intrigued by his résumé because he did two things: fieldwork and lab work. And for a microbiologist, I really need someone who can do the bench work,” says Vega-Thurber. “Ninety percent of our work is in the lab or at the computer.”

McMinds’ willingness to push up his sleeves and dig into the tough work in the lab made him a perfect fit for Vega-Thurber’s team at Oregon State. Soon he will head back to the tropics to study the microbes that cohabit with reef corals. The three-year project will take him to Australia, Madagascar and Saudi Arabia.

Deep Expertise

Corals, like humans, live with bacteria and viruses. Vega-Thurber’s project seeks to understand the dynamics of this relationship in the face of a changing ocean. Stressors like climate change, pollution and overfishing devastate reefs and change the proportion of good to bad microbes within coral populations.

Rebecca Vega-Thurber is studying the microbial communities at coral reefs. (Photo: Jim Carroll)
Rebecca Vega-Thurber is studying the microbial communities at coral reefs. (Photo: Jim Carroll)

“Maybe if we can better understand microbes and what they do in the face of climate change, then we can predict which corals might do well. This knowledge could lead to better decisions on how to manage and protect these vital ecosystems,” Vega-Thurber says.

Coral reefs are hotbeds of biodiversity and critical to global ocean environments. They cover less than 0.1 percent of the Earth’s surface, but they contain 25 percent of marine species. They are complex, multifaceted and fascinating. And they are also threatened. More than 40 percent of the world’s reefs have been lost, mainly due to human causes. Oregon State’s coral researchers are facing these threats head on.

Despite Oregon’s distance from the tropics, Oregon State has a unique cluster of coral expertise. Eli Meyer, an assistant professor in integrative biology, studies the thermal tolerance of corals to better understand the threats of rising sea temperatures. Another integrative biology professor, Virginia Weis, is conducting genetic research with the goal to learn the impacts of coral bleaching, another phenomenon tied to climate change.

For all Oregon State researchers, a key asset is the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing, which allows them to return to campus and delve deeply into the genetic underlayment of their subjects. “When I interviewed here and saw the CGRB, my jaw dropped. I was actually jumping up and down in the server room,” Vega-Thurber says. “They have provided an infrastructure that has elevated our science to a whole new level.”

Vega-Thurber’s work builds on Oregon State’s history of marine science leadership. It’s a legacy that includes Nobel Prizes, MacArthur Fellows and presidential appointees. The Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon has anchored marine research on the Pacific Northwest coast for fifty years. And the university’s new Marine Studies Initiative will include expanded programming, research, degree opportunities and a multimillion-dollar investment that comes at a critical time for the world’s oceans.

While Oregon State’s facilities, legacy and diversity of expertise in coral and marine research drew Vega-Thurber here, it’s the working relationships that make her stay. “The community is really collaborative, everyone wants to work together, and I think that’s something really unique to this university.”

Worlds to Explore

From his home base in Oregon, McMinds will be gaining a global perspective on the health and diversity of coral reefs. He just returned from the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia, conducting foundational research on Vega-Thurber’s project. More trips will follow, including to the Red Sea off of Saudi Arabia in March of 2015.

McMinds takes a boat out to dive on the reef.
Reef research requires boating and scuba skills. (Photo: David Baker)

For students who want to get involved with research at this level, McMinds has simple advice: “Start now.”

And Vega-Thurber agrees. “You have more opportunities as an undergraduate than at any other time in your career to do amazing things and to go to amazing places,” she says. Her advice is to ask for help in finding those opportunities and to pursue what interests you.

McMinds is no stranger to seeking opportunities. His recent trip to Australia was funded through a fellowship he secured by his own initiative, and he will apply that research to his project for Vega-Thurber’s lab.

Vega-Thurber sees such research opportunities as a draw for the College of Science. “The number of students that do independent research is very high, and we encourage students to get hands-on experience,” she says. “Because that experience will only solidify information that they’re learning in their course work, and it also gives them an opportunity to gain a skill set that they can use to get a job.”

For Vega-Thurber and McMinds, that job is understanding and protecting one of the world’s most threatened and essential ecosystems.

“We’re really losing corals fast,” McMinds says. “But if we better understand them, maybe we can learn how to stop losing them.”