Meet Becca Maher, an alumna of OSU who graduated in 2021 with her Ph.D. in microbiology. Dr. Maher’s dissertation focused on stressors that drive changes in coral microbiome diversity and composition and was advised by Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber.
Becca grew up in South Texas around exotic pets. She joked, “We kind of have a zoo.” With animals at home and living near the coast, she fell in love with how organisms interact with their physical environment and eventually found the field of ecology. After studying a troop of capuchin monkeys in Latin America, she was inspired by professor Adrienne Correa at Rice University to study coral reef ecology. Rice did not have a marine science program, so she and her professor collaborated with the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in Galveston, Texas, administered by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
After finishing her degree, she was steered towards graduate school by her mentor at Rice, Dr. Correa. She then came to OSU to pursue a Ph.D. in the lab of Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber. OSU was a perfect choice for Becca because she could expand her ecological-focused research to include microbiology and also got to work at a new coral reef study site established in Mo’orea, French Polynesia, in collaboration with the Burkepile Lab at UC Santa Barbara. During this time, she received her scientific diver certification from OSU and had the opportunity to go to Mo’orea for fieldwork as part of the Vega Thurber Lab to study stress effects on coral microbiomes.
To pay for graduate school, Becca was funded by her advisor as a graduate research assistant and later by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. In her final year, she was funded by the Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for 2020 and received the Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in 2021.
Becca’s Ph.D. dissertation was motivated by the idea that coral reefs face multiple stressors simultaneously like the rising temperature of seawater, pollution, and overfishing. She wanted to know if multiple stressors have a greater impact on coral microbiomes, like the combination of rising seawater temperature and pollution, rather than a single stressor. To find out, she collaborated with researchers from UC Santa Barbara to perform a tank exposure experiment and discovered that multiple stressors do not exacerbate the effects of single stressors on coral microbiome diversity and composition. However, she found out that ocean water’s rising temperature has the greatest impact on coral microbiome disruption. This led her to conclude that while it is good to clean up pollution in the ocean, a better way to fix the problem of coral reef decline is to tackle global warming at an international level.
Becca is now a postdoc at the University of Oregon studying how disturbance affects the assembly of microbes within a host. This is an extension of her work at OSU, but instead of using corals, she will be using zebrafish, a model organism. Her next goal is to apply ecological models of microbiome variation to non-model organisms like corals in the future.