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College of Science student receives OSCAR Student Excellence Award for impactful undergraduate research

Trent Grasso stands in front of a figure of an elephant.
Grasso said he has loved elephants since childhood, and continues to love them for their unique anatomy and evolutionary history, as well as their high intelligence and complex social lives. Photo provided. 

Congratulations to George Mason University environmental science and policy student Trent Grasso, who received an OSCAR Student Excellence Award in April recognizing outstanding undergraduate students who participate in research and creative activities. 

Grasso’s interests have long focused on the wellbeing and conservation of elephants. When accepted to George Mason, Grasso had already cultivated and launched a public database that hosted a collection of more than 250 articles on elephants and related species spanning from the 1500s to today. At George Mason, he began working with Department of Biology assistant professor Kathleen Hunt and participated in the Biology Undergraduate Research Semester to extract hormones from elephant tail hair from the Maryland Zoo and the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (SNZCBI). He and Hunt’s research resulted in a determination of the growth rate of tail hair in both Asian and African elephants and successfully run immunoassays, a type of biochemical test, for cortisol and progesterone.

According to Grasso, quantifying the stress levels and reproductive welfare of elephants is crucial to the development of conservation efforts for this species in both zoos and in the wild. 

“We extracted hormones from hair which, unlike the more traditional blood or urine, provides a stable long-term record of the animal’s hormonal history, since hormones are continually deposited in the hair and remain there as it grows,” said Grasso. 

Grasso and Hunt will continue their research by integrating the data gathered on hair growth rate with hormone data, enabling them to pinpoint hormone concentrations relative to their position along the elephant’s tail hair. They also seek to examine the correlation between these concentrations and events in the elephants’ lives to assess the impact on stress levels and reproductive health.

In addition to his research with Hunt, Grasso spent a semester at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC) in the Endangered Species Conservation program to complete research identifying a more accurate Asian elephant population count through literature reviews and interviews as there is no true agreed upon population count for the species. He presented his findings to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Officials. 

In 2023, Grasso continued working with Hunt’s lab to run hormone extractions on whale baleen—the filter-feeding system inside the mouths of baleen whales. These extractions were analyzed to help understand baleen growth rates of bowhead whales and to create hormone profiles for many different whale species. 

“Working with Dr. Hunt has strengthened my analytical and scientific writing skills, which has proven useful for classes where I’ve had to conduct literature reviews or write up lab reports,” said Grasso. “I’ve become more familiar with various scholarly databases, which has made it easier to find scientific literature both for classes and lab work. I’ve also been taught the importance of writing everything down and having backups of all records in a research project.”

Grasso currently volunteers as a zoo aide at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, getting first-hand experience with the species that he loves. He will graduate in December 2024.