Two URI graduate students awarded research fellowships from National Science Foundation

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Danielle Perry

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 29, 2017 – Two University of Rhode Island doctoral students have been awarded prestigious fellowships through the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowships Program.

Danielle Perry of Hazlet, N.J., and Felicia Woods of Ottumwa, Iowa, received the three-year fellowships that provide $12,000 per year for tuition plus a $34,000 stipend.

Perry calls the fellowship “a dream come true” enabling her to continue her research on greenhouse gas emissions from degraded salt marshes. “Now I know I don’t have to worry about funding and can focus more on my research. I don’t have to rush to finish my degree,” she said.

A graduate of the marine biology and environmental science program at the University of New Haven, Perry is collaborating with Save the Bay to monitor the effects of salt marsh conservation projects along the Narrow River in Narragansett.

“When salt marshes are healthy, they absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere,” she explained. “But salt marshes are eroding from sea level rise and wave action, and now they’re degrading and releasing the gases they had stored. Conservation projects are attempting to restore the marshes so they will gain back their normal function.”

Felicia Woods

Over the next three years, Perry will use a gas analyzer to measure the greenhouse gases coming from six salt marsh sites to determine whether the restoration efforts are reducing the gas emissions.

“Salt marshes are important habitats,” she said. “They mitigate storm effects and limit flooding, they’re a nursery ground for fish and other marine life, and they’re a buffer zone between the ocean and the land that protects coastal developments.”

After the completion of her doctorate, Perry plans to work for a government agency to protect and manage coastal resources or for a nonprofit agency conducting coastal conservation activities.

Woods, who earned a bachelor’s degree in marine science from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, is assessing the problem of sea turtles becoming cold-stunned in New England waters each fall.

“Cold-stunning is extreme hypothermia associated with sudden decreases in sea water temperatures in the fall, which incapacitates green turtles, Kemp’s ridley turtles and loggerhead turtles,” Woods said. “Those species are dependent on ambient temperatures to regulate their body temperature, and when the water turns cold in the fall, they can become cold-stunned and stranded.”

According to Woods, more than 1,200 sea turtles stranded on beaches on Cape Cod in the fall of 2014, making it the worst year for stranded turtles in the region on record. And the trend has been increasing since 1979.

“The Gulf of Maine is the fastest warming body of water, and we think those warming temperatures are driving more turtles into the region to feed,” she said. “It stays warmer longer, too, so when it’s time for them to head back south again, they get hit by a block of cold water once they head out into the Atlantic, which creates a barrier preventing them from leaving.”

Woods is studying the frequency and extent of this phenomenon in New England waters and trying to correlate it with other environmental factors to develop a predictive model.

After graduation, Woods hopes to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or another government agency that protects marine resources.

“I want to do something that’s going to make a difference,” she said. “That’s why I chose marine science, because there’s a lot of work to do. Conservation is near and dear to my heart.”