URI grad student awarded Fulbright Fellowship to study in Iceland

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Milwaukee native will first compete in Henley Regatta

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 17, 2012 – Megan O’Brien has had her fair share of academic success at the University of Rhode Island. As a sophomore she was awarded a Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s most prestigious scholarship for students studying science and engineering, as well as a NOAA Hollings Scholarship, a nationally competitive scholarship for undergraduates in the marine sciences.

Now she has done it again. The native of Milwaukee who now calls Whitefish Bay, Wis., home has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship enabling her to spend a year studying in Iceland.

“I thought it was a long shot to get the Fulbright,” said O’Brien. “But I thought it would be really cool to go to Iceland to study, and it would be my first chance to go abroad. I’m looking to broaden my world view.”

The Fulbright Student Program is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by providing high-achieving students with the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research to help find solutions to shared international concerns. O’Brien is the 11th URI student to win a Fulbright grant in the last 14 years.

O’Brien has been conducting research on the evolution of parasitism in marine organisms, focusing on red algae and water molds, studies that she began as an undergraduate and continued for her graduate degree.

“We know the organisms have a different lifestyle now, but they once had the same lifestyle,” she explained. “I’m looking for the genetic fingerprint that shows their divergence. How is it that organisms that used to be photosynthetic changed and became parasitic and dependent on a host?”

As she wraps up that research and prepares to complete her master’s degree this summer, she is looking forward to shifting gears for the next stage of her academic career.

“I knew I wanted to get out of the lab,” said O’Brien, “and my classes in sustainable development and resource economics got me thinking that I might want to explore the social science side of the marine environment. I think that someone from the science side who transitions to the social science world will be valuable in the future.”

She decided to spend her Fulbright year in Iceland because of its long success at the wise management of its marine resources.

“Most U.S. fisheries are a mess, and so is the Mediterranean, and the Great Barrier Reef is disappearing,” O’Brien said. “I want to learn from the people who have done a good job and whose fisheries have been protected for years. I want to learn their model.”

According to O’Brien, Iceland has managed its fisheries conservatively by working closely with fishermen and coastal communities to ensure that both the fishermen and the fish can thrive.

She will study at the University Centre of the Westfjords in northwest Iceland and earn a master’s degree in coastal and marine management.

“I’m hoping to do ecosystem-based resource management, which is more about managing people than resources by making sure the people harvest the fisheries in a sustainable way,” she said. “It’s about having a balanced system.”

Before she leaves for Iceland, O’Brien will compete in the Henley Regatta in England, the world’s most prestigious rowing competition. She has been a member of the URI women’s rowing team since her sophomore year in 2009 and looks forward to her first international competition.

“Two friends dared me to try out for the team, saying I wouldn’t last two weeks, and now I’ve lasted four years,” she said with pride. “Once I got in that boat and found out what it was all about, I was hooked. I love rowing, getting up early, seeing the sunrise. And the team of 40 girls are really driven and motivated to work hard and push every day.

“Henley is all about history and tradition, and women’s rowing is new to Henley and to college sports in general,” she added. “It will be a great opportunity for our group of women to go and row at one of the most famous races in the world.”