When Jacob (Jake) Tepper was an eighth-grader, he and his dad traded in their 20-gallon saltwater aquarium and transferred its inhabitants — an anemone and a pair of clownfish — to a spacious 50-gallon reef tank. They added corals and a porcupine pufferfish who begged for food by squirting water at passersby. And then there were the stowaways: bristle worms, snails and other ocean organisms that hitch a ride on the “live rock” that aquarium hobbyists often use in their “refugia” (connected tanks where beneficial flora and fauna live without predation).
“It was a self-contained marine ecosystem,” says Tepper, an OSU marine biology student. “Different life forms would pop up and dominate the system. I would spend hours just staring at it, observing.”
Fish were a fixture for Tepper. Growing up in Massachusetts meant catching sunfish on the Charles River and fishing for cod and striped bass in Gloucester. His 50-gallon aquarium eventually gave way to a 100-gallon tank in the basement of his Newton home. But he wasn’t satisfied to be on the outside looking in. At 13, he took up scuba so he could swim with the fish. His most enthralling dive happened in the Cayman Islands.
“You descend a hundred feet beside this vertical rock wall that reaches a depth of 3,000 feet and is covered with purple and pink corals,” he says. “Then you turn around and look at the open ocean, this vast blueness without boundaries. It’s mind-blowing.”
After visiting colleges around the country, he chose Oregon State for its top-notch marine biology program. “I wanted to have experiences outside the classroom,” he says. “This program offers lots of opportunities.” On top of that, he enrolled in OSU’s University Honors College.
Right away, he zeroed in on coral reefs for a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) undergrad research program. The summer after his freshman year, he worked on a joint experiment with a lab in Florida to study macro-algae (seaweed) encroachment in Key Largo, where corals are struggling to compete for habitat. “Why are the algae winning?” was the research question for Tepper and his team, led by OSU microbiologist Rebecca Vega Thurber. “What’s the role of micro-organisms like bacteria and viruses?”
Diving at Pickles Reef, Tepper collected mucus from the coral with a syringe for DNA analysis and took samples of three algae species, two brown and one green. He communicated with his dive partner using basic scuba hand signals and messages scrawled on underwater clipboards. His Rescue Diver and Scientific Diver training proved essential, particularly when one of his buddies was low on air and needed to share Jake’s.
Tepper presented his experiment at HHMI (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40gGgzZdiZc). Next fall, he heads to Bonaire for more reef research through the Council on International Educational Exchange. And as OSU’s most recent recipient of the prestigious NOAA Hollings Scholarship, he will be working with a NOAA scientist on yet another project, still to be decided.
“My focus is on marine conservation biology,” Tepper says. “Coral reefs are dying. Hurricanes, pollution, overfishing, farm runoff, ocean acidification, big city wastes, disease — all these things destroy reefs. I want to do research on reefs that will lead to the creation of a lot more marine protected areas.”