Two URI grad students receive Scholar Awards from PEO International

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International philanthropic group supports women in higher education

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 26, 2010 – Two graduate students at the University of Rhode Island, Nicole Rohr and Kimberly Lellis-Dibble, have been selected to receive $15,000 Scholar Awards from PEO International, a philanthropic group whose mission is to promote educational opportunities for women.

In addition, Lellis-Dibble has been awarded a $111,000 Science To Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowship from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“These awards recognize two of the University’s top graduate students, both of whom arrived on campus as IGERT Fellows, a very competitive program of the National Science Foundation, so we knew that they were going to do great things,” said Peter August, URI professor of natural resources science. “The awards that Kim and Nicole have just won prove that we were right.”

PEO International was founded in Iowa in 1869 and now has a quarter million members in the United States and Canada. Its scholars program provides merit-based awards to women pursuing doctoral degrees or who are engaged in postdoctoral research.

Rohr has known that she wanted to study marine biology since enrolling in a high school class while growing up in St. Joseph, Missouri. At URI she is studying the invasive Asian shore crab to examine its impact on the intertidal zone. She said that the crabs are causing considerable ecological changes to the rocky shoreline.

“What they eat and what eats them is very different from the green crabs that they are pushing out of the area,” explained Rohr. “They are changing the structure and the habitat of the intertidal zone. And because the Asian shore crab is much more aggressive, the fish don’t eat them as often as they do other crabs.”

Rohr said it was “a wonderful surprise” to receive the PEO Scholars Award, which she said she will use to purchase research equipment and hire an undergraduate student to help her with her field work this summer. When she completes her Ph.D. in 2011 she hopes to work for a non-governmental agency working on marine policy.

“I would like to take my Ph.D. and be the scientist on a team of people who develop marine policy,” she said. “The policymakers who are writing laws and regulations often don’t have a strong science background, but it’s really important to have strong scientific information in your marine management plans in order for them to be successful.”

A native of Ames, Iowa, who later moved to Wellsboro, Penn. as a teenager, Lellis-Dibble is researching the impact of Phragmites australis, an invasive species of reed grass, on aquatic food webs and the growth rate of resident fish populations. She said that Phragmites elevate the structure of marshes, reducing the ability of tides to flush water over the marsh and sometimes making it difficult for fish to feed.

“I hadn’t really heard of PEO before Nicole brought it to my attention, but because it’s based in Iowa, where I was born, and because it encourages women in higher education, I knew it was a program I should apply to,” said Lellis-Dibble.

Soon after hearing about the PEO award, Lellis-Dibble was excited to hear that she had also been awarded the EPA STAR Fellowship. The three-year fellowship provides a stipend of $20,000 per year, $12,000 towards tuition each year, and $5,000 per year for research supplies.

“I’m really excited about the opportunities both scholarships will provide,” she said. “The support will allow me to finish my doctoral degree in a timely manner while providing funds to hire undergraduates to assist with my research.”

Lellis-Dibble anticipates graduating in 2012, after which she hopes to work for a government agency serving as a liaison between scientists and natural resource managers.

“I worked for the federal government as a resource manager for a couple of years,” she said, “and I really enjoyed the policy aspect of my job. I’d like to return to federal service and use the scientific and interdisciplinary training I received here at URI to make marine policy that is based on the best science available.”

Pictured above

Nicole Rohr (left) and Kimberly Lells-Dibble. URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.