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Gerald Cobian, right, was one of 11 military veterans who presented his research at the National Science Foundation headquarters.

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa graduate student Gerald Cobian is one of 11 military veterans with research fellowships in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields honored at a research symposium and ceremony at the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) last week.

Cobian is a second-year PhD student in botany, working in a UH Mānoa College of Natural Sciences laboratory led by Assistant Professor Anthony Amend. His dissertation research is focused on the community dynamics of foliar endophytic fungi—unique microorganisms that live inside the leaves of Hawaiʻi’s native plants.

Cobian was selected from among 85 veterans nationwide who are currently supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

About the NSF Saluting Veterans in STEM symposium, Cobian commented, “It was a really diverse group of veterans, representing all different branches—Coast Guard, Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy—as well as all different types of research.” Other veterans presented on topics from prosthesis development to micro-robotics to biofuels.

“It’s important for people to recognize that there are veterans doing this type of work,” Cobian added.

A native of Northern California, Cobian served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2000 to 2004 as an infantry machine gunner, stationed at Twentynine Palms, California. He did two tours of combat duty in Iraq, once with 3rd Battalion 4th Marines, one of the first units into Baghdad. His second tour of duty was with 3rd Battalion 7th Marines in 2004, where his group occupied a forward observation base on the Iraq-Syria border.

“Initially I never even planned on going to college,” said Cobian, who worked in construction in Southern California after he finished his military service. The GI Bill made it possible for him to go back to school, first considering a degree in economics before switching to biology after a particularly positive classroom experience at Butte Community College in Oroville, California.

Cobian ultimately earned his undergraduate degree in genetics and plant biology at the University of California, Berkeley, working in the Tom Bruns Lab under Nhu Nguyen.

Cobian's fungi research is supported by a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Cobian’s fungi research is supported by a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

“Gerry has a deep knowledge and love of fungal natural history—really an infectious enthusiasm, which gives him an edge in his research. It also makes him a lot of fun to have around,” said Cobian’s graduate advisor Amend. “He’s able to leverage that specialized knowledge to learn more about one of the most pervasive symbioses in nature. Gerry’s work will have a huge impact on our understanding of the ecology and evolution of plant interactions with Hawaiian environments.”

The fungi inside the plant leaves has been shown to help protect the plants against heat and drought stress, and from being eaten by insects and other animals.

“On the Big Island, I’m looking at how the plant and fungi communities are different across an elevation gradient,” Cobian said. “I’m also looking at different species within the same site.”

Cobian has just finished a pilot study and plans to primarily work with plants growing in kipukas separated by lava flows on Mauna Loa.

“If I hadn’t been in the military, then I probably wouldn’t have gone to school, and I probably wouldn’t be where I am now,” Cobian said. “The military opened up these opportunities for me.”

Learn more about the resources available to veterans enrolled at UH Mānoa through the Office of Veterans Support Services.

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