Three URI students earn prestigious Hollings Scholarships from NOAA

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KINGSTON, R.I. –April 30, 2009 – Three sophomores at the University of Rhode Island have been awarded the Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the first URI students to receive the prestigious honor since 2005.

The recipients, among 100 winners nationwide, are Connor Capizzano, a marine biology major from Richmond; Megan O’Brien, a marine biology major from Whitefish Bay, Wis.; and Harrison Zimmer, an ocean engineering and anthropology major from Port Washington, N.Y.

The award provides the students with $8,000 toward tuition in their junior and seniors years plus a paid summer internship at a NOAA facility. 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.

Capizzano, who plans to eventually earn a Ph.D. in marine biology, hadn’t even considered a career in the marine sciences until his freshman year at URI when a professor talked about his shark research in a class.

“Sharks have always been a huge part of my childhood, and I continued to read about them through high school,” Capizzano said. “But I always thought that researching sharks was a TV job that would never happen. After seeing what an education could give me, I immediately switched my major that semester.”

That decision launched him to assist with a shark research project assessing the movement patterns of lemon, tiger and reef sharks in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“With receivers that record the time, date, and depth for each specimen, I receive thousands of transmitter recordings from up to 20 specimens,” Capizzano explained. “It’s my job to translate this data into manageable graphs and try to recognize specific migration patterns between species.”

Capizzano hopes to spend his NOAA internship at the fisheries laboratory in Narragansett, where the Apex Predator Investigation Program studies sharks throughout the region.

“The more I understand these animals, the closer I get to understanding why they are one of the best predators on the planet,” Capizzano said. “One reason why I study these animals is because of their resistance to cancer. If an organism can resist cancer without medication and treatments, I think that is an amazing topic to look into for future health care.”

O’Brien has had a long-time interest in oceanography and environmental science, which was further enhanced by a high school research project studying the invasive quagga mussel at the Great Lakes Water Institute.

“The quagga mussel is prolific and is spreading rapidly, causing huge economic and ecological repercussions,” O’Brien said. “They cause billions of dollars in damage to water intake pipes as well as fouling boats, docks, buoys, and beaches. And they’re continuing to expand their non-indigenous range.”

At URI, where O’Brien competes on the swimming and rowing teams, she is studying the evolution of a parasitic red alga and taking the lead on the genome sequencing of the common alga Polysiphonia and its related parasite Chorecolax. She has also conducted research on acorn barnacles and volunteered aboard a research ship in the Pacific Ocean.

O’Brien’s career objective is to conduct marine science research to advance knowledge of the oceans and create environmental awareness in students. On her way to achieving that goal, she hopes to spend her NOAA internship at the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, the National Ocean Service, or the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

“During my internship, I want to increase the scope of my laboratory experience, expand my knowledge, and increase my skills in areas such as critical analysis,” she said.

In addition to winning a Hollings Scholarship, O’Brien is also the recipient of the 2009 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the most prestigious national scholarship for students interested in science and engineering careers.

Zimmer’s decision to study ocean engineering came after first considering marine biology and architecture. During freshman orientation he learned that more is known about Mars than about the world’s oceans, which peaked his interest in exploring the deep sea.

“[URI Professor and marine explorer] Robert Ballard has always been a mentor to me,” Zimmer said. “Ocean engineering will not only enable me to work with marine materials, but also work at sea performing tasks that I could only imagine. The idea of building the underwater vehicles that would enable us to capture more detailed information about our oceans quickly captivated me.”

Zimmer is a member of the URI Autonomous Underwater Vehicle team, which is building a vehicle to compete against other university teams in San Diego in July, and working with another team of students on a surface boat for competition in Norfolk, Va. During his NOAA internship, he hopes to design and build underwater robotics that would be of use to the Office of Ocean Exploration and the Marine Sanctuary Program.

“Working in the field of robotics within the defense department would also be of interest,” he said. “And the preservation of shipwrecks through the marine sanctuary program could also be a possible career working with those in the field of archaeological oceanography.”

Of the Hollings Scholarship, Zimmer said “I applied for it because I have an interest in working for NOAA, and this opportunity would provide a step up to reaching that goal. I am grateful for this opportunity to spread my wings in this amazing career, and hope that it will lead to a meaningful and successful life.”

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