URI advisor, advisee awarded Fulbright Fellowships to conduct research abroad

Newport residents to study in Iceland, South Korea

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Beth Mendenhall, left and Eliya Baron Lopez. Photo by Nora Lewis
Beth Mendenhall, left and Eliya Baron Lopez. Photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 29, 2021 – University of Rhode Island Assistant Professor Elizabeth Mendenhall has been advising graduate student Eliya Baron Lopez for two years, and they developed a close working relationship as they studied marine plastic pollution in the ocean and issues of marine policy.

Now the two Newport residents have been awarded Fulbright Fellowships to continue their research at opposite sides of the world, Mendenhall in Iceland and Baron Lopez in South Korea.

“We talked about the Fulbright together, we learned about it together, and we got excited about it together,” said Mendenhall. “We both see a little of ourselves in each other. We celebrate each other’s victories, and getting a Fulbright is quite a victory.”

The Fulbright Scholar Program and Fulbright Student Program are designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by providing faculty and high-achieving students with opportunities to research, study or teach abroad.

Mendenhall will travel to Iceland for six months beginning next January to teach classes about the law of the sea at the University of Akureyri and to study how a small nation like Iceland has such an outsized influence on international ocean law. She plans to interview government officials and review the national archives to examine Iceland’s influence over international fisheries and whaling policy, its claim of national jurisdiction well beyond the 200 miles offshore that most nations claim, and its role in international relations.

“In each of these cases, there’s something different that Iceland has done that has influenced the development of norms and rules for every other nation,” Mendenhall said. “I’ll be looking for the strategies, mechanisms and incentives that have pushed Iceland to take on this role.”

In addition to the academic reasons for choosing to study in Iceland, Mendenhall is intrigued by the country and looks forward to exploring it during her free time.

“It just seems like such a unique and stunning place to live,” she said. “The volcanoes and topography are fascinating, and Silfra is the only place in the world where you can scuba dive between two tectonic plates. If I’m going to live somewhere else for six months, this would be a cool place to live.”

Baron Lopez, who grew up in Monterey, California, will use her Fulbright scholarship to spend 10 months studying South Korea’s strategies for managing marine litter. Beginning in August, she will collaborate with researchers at the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology on a variety of projects designed to better understand the success of various methods of reducing plastics pollution in nearby waters.

“What I find especially interesting is that they have a focus on trans-boundary marine debris,” Baron Lopez said. “South Korea is adjacent to China, Japan, Russia and the East Sea, and marine debris flows between the countries and lands on the coast. How do they manage it? I want to understand how we can govern and monitor marine debris globally between countries.”

Baron Lopez became interested in plastic pollution while attending a lecture at Monterey Aquarium when she was 12 years old. At the same time, she became enamored with Korean popular culture after enjoying K-Pop music and Korean television dramas. She subsequently minored in Korean Studies as an undergraduate at the University of California San Diego and spent a summer abroad in South Korea.

“I really took a deep dive into that realm,” she said.

She enrolled at URI after learning that Mendenhall had referenced South Korea’s plastic pollution abatement methods in a research paper about plastic policy development.

“Eliya is a superstar,” Mendenhall said. “From the very beginning, she’s been plastics-obsessed and passionate about South Korea, and it’s been great working with her for the last two years. I’m confident that the Fulbright is going to be a good springboard for her future career.”

“All of the accomplishments that I have achieved would not have occurred if it was not for Dr. Mendenhall’s encouragement, dedication and involvement in my graduate career. She has been there every step of the way,” added Baron Lopez. “As for getting the Fulbright together, I see it as us both kicking some major butt in the ocean policy/governance world.”