KINGSTON, R.I. – May 8, 2019 – Two University of Rhode Island graduate students have been recognized by the National Science Foundation as Graduate Research Fellows, a distinction that includes funding to cover three years of their education plus an annual $34,000 stipend.
Aubree Jones, a native of Oklahoma who earned a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from Texas A&M University, and Catherine Nowakowski, who grew up in Mystic, Connecticut, and earned an undergraduate degree in environmental engineering from the University of Connecticut, have been selected for the prestigious honor.
In addition, URI graduate students Dawn Parry and Brendan Unikewicz received honorable mentions in the highly competitive program. URI alumna Sarah Deckel, now a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, was also awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship, and alumnus Gordon Rix, now studying at the University of California-Irvine, earned honorable mention.
Working with URI Professor Jacqueline Webb, Jones is studying the development of a fish sensory system called the lateral line, which detects water flows and vibrations in the water, enabling fish to more easily find prey and avoid predators. The system may also be linked to schooling behavior, and in some species it is related to courtship rituals. Jones is particularly interested in a type of minnow called the silver jaw minnow that is the only species known to have very different lateral line systems on top of its head and below its jaw, which is hypothesized to be a specialization for prey detection.
“As an undergrad, I studied the biology of seal whiskers, which are used the same way as the lateral line system to detect underwater flows, and from there I jumped into the field of sensory biology,” said Jones, whose long-term plan is to continue her research during a career as a university professor.
Nowakowski is working to understand how the changing climate will affect ecosystem dynamics in the Gulf of Maine. With URI Assistant Professor Kelton McMahon, she will examine how changes in climate and oceanographic conditions affect the plankton communities, biogeochemical cycling and the food webs they support. To do that, she is applying cutting-edge molecular tools to the skeletons of corals to reconstruct how their diet has changed through time.
“I was pretty excited when I heard I got the fellowship,” Nowakowski said. “I didn’t know how to process it fully. It’s a validation that I’m going in the right direction.”
After earning her doctorate, she plans to apply for a Knauss Fellowship, which she hopes will lead to an opportunity to incorporate her skills in art and videography into a career at the intersection of research, education and policy.