My Scientific Journey from Marine Biology to Neuroendocrinology and SOT

By Troy Roepke posted 01-25-2024 02:19 PM


This essay is part of a series designed to celebrate SOT member diversity and showcase the diverse pathways and experiences of its members.

My love of science and biology started early, as I spent much of my childhood on my grandparent’s ranch in East Texas caring for the horses, pigs, cattle, and chickens combined with my enjoyment and fascination of nature programs like The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Jacques, Diane Fossey, and Jane Goodall were my childhood idols. My love of science continued when we moved north to rural Nebraska in my adolescence. By the time I reached high school, I had decided that marine biology was the field for me. I saw the ocean for the first time just shy of my 19th birthday on a college field trip to the Florida Keys. That experience was a revelation for me, and I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist.

After transferring to the Southampton College of Long Island University and completing a bachelor’s degree in marine science/biology with a minor in chemistry in 1992, I started my first attempt at a graduate degree at the University of Texas at Austin in the marine science graduate program. I joined a lab that studied how viruses that infect marine bacteria and phytoplankton alter primary productivity in coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, I did not complete that degree after struggles between my religious family and my sexual orientation negatively impacted my mental health.

After 3.5 years away from science, I returned to graduate school in 1997 to start a MA. in biology/marine biology at San Francisco State University. There, I studied marine invertebrates that were exposed to and utilized hydrogen sulfide, whether in tidal mudflats or associated with hydrothermal vents, and developed a self-contained system for hydrogen sulfide exposure in the lab.

My thesis research made me aware of how marine invertebrates confront exposures to toxic chemicals, naturally occurring and anthropogenic, and interested me in how they reproduce in toxic environments. Thus, for my doctoral studies in physiology, with a designated emphasis in reproductive biology, at the University of California Davis and the Bodega Marine Laboratory, I examined how the reproduction and development of echinoderms (sea urchins, sea stars, etc.) are sensitive to endocrine disruption and revealed the defenses they employ to protect against these insults. During this work, I discovered exciting evidence of non-genomic estrogen signaling in sea urchin embryos and became interested in how these relatively unknown signaling pathways are impacted by endocrine disruptors.

By now, I had been living in the San Francisco Bay area for nine years and was in a long-term, same-sex relationship that enjoyed the protections offered by California. We were not willing to move to another state without such legal protections, but finding a postdoc in marine biology where I could study estrogen signaling and endocrine disruption in such a state proved improbable. Upon the suggestion of a colleague of my mentor, I contacted Martin Kelly, PhD, at Oregon Health and Science University, an expert in non-genomic estrogen signaling in the mammalian brain, and started a new career in neuroendocrinology. I had a lot to learn as I had never studied an organism with a brain before! After a successful postdoctoral experience that included receipt of a K99/R00 award from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, I started my lab at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in 2011, where I combined my expertise in reproduction, toxicology, and neuroendocrinology.

At Rutgers, one of my personal goals was to provide a safe and supportive environment for all trainees in the laboratory—but especially for students and postdocs who belong to my community, the LGBTQIA2S+ community. The Pink Lab (“Yes, my lab is pink.”) is such a space. Today, I am an Associate Professor (going up for promotion to full this year) in animal sciences the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS). Our research team studies how estrogen signaling controls neurological functions and how exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals influences the same functions.

Eventually, my advocacy expanded beyond my lab to my university and the many scientific fields to which my work belongs, including toxicology, neuroscience, endocrinology, and physiology. I currently serve as the first Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for SEBS, working on issues that affect faculty, staff, and students in their pursuit of a college degree and the latest scientific discoveries. I became a member of SOT a few years before a group of queer toxicologists started the Out Toxicologists and Allies (OTA) Special Interest Group. I was asked if I would be interested in participating and jumped at the chance to be a part of this very new and very necessary affinity group. I am currently the President of OTA and advocate for inclusive practices within SOT—from simple things like pronoun stickers for the Annual Meeting [editor’s note: pronoun stickers will be available at the information desk at the SOT 63rd Annual Meeting and ToxExpo in Salt Lake City] to complex issues like deciding on meeting locations in states that are legally hostile to our community.

The goal of OTA and my personal goal is to make toxicology, and science in general, a welcoming and inclusive environment for all toxicologists and for all toxicologists to feel like they belong and can succeed. Trainees, especially those from marginalized backgrounds or communities, must hear the message loud and clear: you have a home in SOT.