Three URI students earn prestigious Hollings Scholarship from NOAA

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Awards provide $16,000 toward tuition plus paid internship

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 28, 2010 – Three sophomores at the University of Rhode Island have been awarded the Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the second straight year that three URI students were awarded the prestigious scholarship.

The recipients, among 100 winners nationwide, are Alexa Kretsch, an aquaculture and fisheries technology major from Eatontown, N.J.; Megan Nepshinsky, a marine biology and environmental science major from West Kingston, R.I.; and Benjamin Negrete, a marine biology major from Fort Worth, Tex.

The award provides the students with a total of $16,000 toward tuition in their junior and seniors years plus a paid summer internship at a NOAA research center during the summer after their junior year. The scholarship program is designed to increase interest in oceanic and atmospheric science, increase support for environmental stewardship, and recruit students to public service careers at NOAA and other governmental science agencies.

All three URI students have known since early in their childhood that they wanted to pursue careers in marine biology, and all three are also musicians who play in URI musical ensembles — Kretsch plays trumpet in the marching band, Negrete plays oboe in the wind ensemble, and Nepshinsky plays flute in the concert band.

Kretsch attended a marine science high school in coastal New Jersey, participated in a national oceanography competition, and won an oceans scholarship before enrolling at URI. But URI’s course offerings convinced her to switch majors from marine biology to aquaculture so she could focus more on sustainable fishing.

“When you see the decimation of shark populations due to the practice of finning or the low populations of bluefin tuna, rather than just shutting down the fishery to bring these species back, we can use management to still support the world’s population that depends on fish for food,” explained Kretsch. “We need a way to support the health of the environment as well as have food security for the world. I would love to help make that happen.”

Through the Hollings Scholarship, she hopes to intern with the National Marine Fisheries Service to gain experience that will help her narrow down her exact career path.

“I have one professor who travels around the world teaching developing countries about sustainable fishing,” Kretsch said. “That might be something I’d like to do, or maybe work with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. There are all sorts of organizations that are concerned with these issues.”

Nepshinsky’s interest in marine science derived somewhat from her parents. Her father is a maritime captain and her mother works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so she spent a great many of her growing up years at the ocean exploring tidal pools and marine life.

At URI she has taken an interest in research projects involving algae, and she now is working on a project at the University’s Graduate School of Oceanography to study the microorganisms associated with red tides and other harmful algal blooms.

“I’m really interested in marine diseases, so I’m leaning toward eventually getting a Ph.D. in marine microbiology,” said Nepshinsky, who also competes on URI’s varsity rowing team. “I’m really interested in the micro-processes that take place in the marine environment.”

The URI student is hoping for an internship with NOAA’s Ocean Service or its Coral Reef Conservation Program. “I am interested in working with marine micro-diseases affecting corals,” she wrote in her scholarship application. “I am also interested in the research conducted on coastal ecosystems involving factors such as climate change, natural events like red tide, pollution, invasive species and land and resource use, which help to discover factors that influence the spreading of marine diseases and their affects on the marine environment.”

In addition to the Hollings Scholarship, Nepshinsky also received a Metcalf Fellowship enabling her to travel to New Zealand and Fiji to work on an environmental conservation project designed to conserve the habitats of native and endangered species.

Having grown up four hours from the Texas coast, Negrete is at a loss to explain why he is so passionate about marine biology. But he says that he “just somehow knew” that was his career direction.

“The deep sea is so vast and mysterious, and we only know about one percent of it despite how much we know about the rest of the world and the stars,” he said. “Everyone seems to disregard this huge playground under the sea; it’s taken for granted.”

Like Nepshinsky, Negrete is conducting research at the Graduate School of Oceanography. He is studying how Narragansett Bay oxygen and pH levels change from season to season in relation to the oxygen usage of marine organisms. He hopes that his Hollings Scholarship internship will allow him to work with the NOAA Office of Exploration to learn about areas of the deep sea that have yet to be explored.

“Whatever happens, I know the scholarship will open doors for me and allow me to meet people and see new opportunities,” he said. “What more could I hope for at this stage of my life?”

Jacqueline Webb, director of URI’s Marine Biology Program, noted that the six URI students currently holding Hollings Scholarships are the first URI students to receive these prestigious awards since 2005. “This is a remarkable achievement for URI,” she said. “We are anxious to keep up the momentum and are already looking at our freshman class for excellent prospective applicants for next year.”

Pictured above

The Hollings Scholarship winners from URI are (l-r) Megan Nepshinsky, Alexa Kretsch and Ben Negrete.