Doctoral candidate Sage Rohrer secures NSF fellowship to support study of Galápagos penguins

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Sage Rohrer

Biology doctoral candidate Sage Rohrer was among approximately 1,500 graduate students chosen to receive a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The fellowship will support her research of Galápagos penguins. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Maybe it will happen as she’s floating near a colony of penguins while on a boat off the shore of Isabela Island – the largest in the archipelago. Or perhaps it’ll be sometime on land when she’s gazing across a field of black lava rocks like she’s seen nowhere else on the planet.

But at some point, when Sage Rohrer returns to the Galápagos Islands later this summer, she will pause long enough to take stock of just how far she’s traveled from the rural home in the Ozarks where she grew up.

“Galápagos is crazy,” the University of Missouri–St. Louis doctoral student said. “It’s like an alien world. The animals are, of course, legendary – Galápagos tortoises, blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas. It’s mind-blowing. As an undergrad, I had no idea that this was possible or that I could have something like that in my career.”

Research opportunities at UMSL while still pursuing her bachelor’s degree in biology first helped Rohrer board the plane toward that future. Her time in graduate school working in the lab of Patricia Parker, E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Zoological Studies in the Department of Biology and a senior scientist at the Saint Louis Zoo, has helped her take off.

Since enrolling in the doctoral program in 2017, she’s been investigating the gastrointestinal microbiome of Galápagos penguins and whether it makes the birds more or less susceptible to disease. Those topics will be central to her dissertation proposal.

She’ll get to focus entirely on that research until she completes her dissertation and earns her PhD after securing a highly competitive Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

The NSF awards approximately 1,500 fellowships each year. Those selected receive a three-year stipend of $34,000 per year to support them in their graduate training. The fellowship also pays the students’ institutions $12,000 per year over the same time period.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Rohrer said. “With NSF, you don’t really expect to get things ever. It’s going to free up so much time because I won’t need to TA for the rest of my PhD, so I’ll be able to focus on research and do more outreach and mentorship.”

Cutting across traditional boundaries

Rohrer has been working in collaboration with scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation. During her last trip to the Galápagos last summer, she gathered fecal samples used to determine the gastrointestinal biome composition of the penguins and blood samples that were then tested for pathogens such as Plasmodium.

She’s hopeful what she learns examining microbial ecology and host genetics can inform infection trends.

That knowledge can help inform efforts to protect the Galápagos penguins, which, with only about 1,500 individuals, are classified as endangered. That number has fluctuated significantly with strong El Niño events in recent years causing mortality rates of up to 77 percent.

Simply having a better understanding of the penguins’ natural microbiomes could have benefits in zoo settings to improve animal health or for making animal reintroduction into the wild more successful.

“What is exceptional about Sage is that she is broad-thinking,” said Parker, who serves as Rohrer’s co-advisor along with Assistant Professor Lon Chubiz. “Rather than restrict her focus narrowly to aspects of ecology and evolution, she began right away taking classes in the more molecular components of the department and saw connections between the conceptual areas within biology that had not been explored in the Galápagos system.

“I think her ability to see across traditional boundaries was obvious to the reviewers at NSF, and they wanted to support this kind of integrated work across areas of biological science that until recently were foreign to each other.”

Shaped by experiences

Parker didn’t necessarily recognize that trait in Rohrer immediately upon meeting her as an undergraduate student assisting then-doctoral candidate Mari Jaramillo. Her earliest impression of Rohrer was just how quiet she was.

Rohrer was acclimating to a different environment, having grown up on a remote, wooded property near Leasburg, Missouri.

“It’s a really beautiful place, and there are lots of beautiful rivers in the area where you can go kayaking and canoeing,” Rohrer said.

Her parents taught her sustainability, raising her in a house they constructed with straw bales and powered by solar energy.

Rohrer was surrounded by nature, but it wasn’t until high school, while working as an interpreter and later a seasonal naturalist at Onondaga Cave State Park, that Rohrer began to think of science and conservation as things she could turn into a career. Before that, she’d wanted to be a professional musician, having studied piano and cello.

She applied to several universities but chose UMSL primarily because of the scholarship opportunities she found there. She was also intrigued by the connections the biology department has with the Saint Louis Zoo and Missouri Botanical Garden.

Making connections with St. Louis’ strong scientific community proved surprisingly easy. Just by being on campus, she discovered opportunities to get involved.

She volunteered on a rabbit mark recapture project with the Missouri Department of Conservation and got involved with the Audubon Center at Riverlands, ultimately working as a bird survey technician conducting point count surveys of nesting birds during her senior year. She led groups that took boats out to islands in the Mississippi River and hiked around, listening and looking for the species of birds they could identify there.

But most impactful was the work she did with Jaramillo, whom she joined for one summer of fieldwork in Galápagos before Rohrer’s junior year. During that first trip, Rohrer camped for 3½ weeks on an uninhabited island and hiked through lava rocks and up craters to reach hawk territories.

“I remember walking up and down one of the beaches when I was there the first time and trying to rewrite my timeline for undergrad and figure out, ‘OK, maybe if I work for this organization or I volunteer here or I do this, then I could go to grad school,’” she said. “It was definitely a pivotal experience.”

Finding her voice

By the time Rohrer graduated magna cum laude in 2017, she was more than ready for graduate school. She had a strong recommendation from Parker to boost her applications at several schools and was accepted to all of them, but ultimately, she decided her opportunities were even greater staying at UMSL.

“It was a tough decision,” Rohrer said. “I was almost certain I was going to go somewhere else, but I started looking for programs, and I knew that I was interested in avian ecology in some way, and I really like avian disease ecology” – which Parker’s lab specializes in.

She’s been grateful to continue working there while shifting her focus to Galápagos penguins.

Before securing the NSF fellowship, Rohrer found support for her research pursuits in the form of several UMSL and Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center grants, namely the E. Desmond Lee Zoo Studies grant, the Peter H. Raven World Ecology research grant, the Henry B. Cowhey grant in tropical conservation, the Jorie Butler Kent grant and the Van Trease graduate research grant in tropical ecology. She also received a grant from the Saint Louis Zoo’s Field Research for Conservation Program.

Ultimately, Rohrer, who’s been involved in the Harris Center’s Jennings-UMSL Mentorship Program, would like to use the degree she earns from UMSL in a job as the science director at a conservation-oriented organization such as the National Audubon Society.

Parker, who’s seen Rohrer grow in class and in the lab over the past six years, is confident she’ll be ready for such a leadership position after her time at UMSL ends.

“She’s often the person who makes the pivotal point that changes the direction of the conversation,” Parker said. “She has found her voice.”

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