Three URI doctoral students win prestigious fellowships from National Science Foundation

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Graduate Research Fellowships worth $138,000 each

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 15, 2015 – Three doctoral students studying at the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences have been awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships that will provide them with $34,000 stipends for each of three years and up to $12,000 each year for tuition.

Andrew Battles of Fort Worth, Tex., Matthew Birk of York, Penn., and Laura Filliger of Yorba Linda, Cal., were awarded the fellowships that recognize outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in science and engineering. In addition, URI alumni Samantha Alger, Syrena Fernandes and Shelby Rinehart also received fellowships to continue their studies elsewhere.

Battles, who earned his undergraduate degree in biology at Trinity University, said he was “pretty surprised and definitely excited” when he got word that he was selected for the fellowship, noting that it will provide him with some financial security as he continues work on his doctorate.

His research, under the direction of Assistant Professor Jason Kolbe, focuses on lizards living in urban environments and how the urban habitat is influencing their behavior and evolution. “Urban areas are growing, and that means that more natural species will come into contact with cities,” Battles said. “It’s important to know how they might react and respond to different aspects of the urban environment.”

He spends his time observing how anoles in Miami use the urban habitat of walls and utility poles compared to the tree trunks and branches of more natural habitat. And he conducts laboratory studies of lizards running on various man-made and natural surfaces.

Birk was shocked when he learned he was successful in his third and last try at earning the fellowship. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, he said “it was a big relief because it frees me up to focus on my research instead of also balancing my time with teaching responsibilities.”

Working with Associate Professor Brad Seibel, Birk studies the effects of ocean acidification on squid, whose blood may be very sensitive to acidified water. “If their blood becomes acidified, they won’t be able to pick up oxygen with their gills and then won’t have enough oxygen for their bodies,” he said. “I’m not concerned that they’re going to drop dead from it, but I am concerned that when they’re oxygen-stressed to begin with – like if they’re living in a low oxygen region of the ocean — they’ll be even more stressed under ocean acidification.”

The NSF fellowship will allow Birk to conduct another research project as well. This one will focus on measuring the energy that squid use to expand and contract the millions of pigment sacs that provide them with their ability to camouflage themselves.

Filliger said that the email message announcing that she received the fellowship went into her spam folder, so she didn’t realize she won until a friend texted her. “And since it was March 31, I thought it was just an early April Fool’s joke,” she said.

A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, she studies diatoms in the Southern Ocean and how they respond to nutrient stress. “Even though it’s very low in nutrients there, we found that the diatoms are flourishing,” Filliger said. “My job is to look at their genes to see which genes they’re expressing to deal with this nutrient-limited environment. They must have very different nutrient requirements.”

She and her advisor, Associate Professor Bethany Jenkins, have traveled to the waters around Antarctica twice to collect diatom samples and determine “which species are the most important players. The Southern Ocean is a rapidly changing environment,” she said, “so it’s important to know how the organisms there are responding to climate change.”

A total of 2,000 students from across the country were awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships, just 10 percent of the applicant pool.

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