KINGSTON, R.I. – May 6, 2020 – University of Rhode Island sophomore Myles Wagner has been awarded the Ernest F. Hollings Scholarship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the most prestigious scholarship awarded to undergraduates studying the marine sciences. Since 2005, URI students have won 29 Hollings Scholarships, at least one every year and one of the highest totals of any institution in New England.
The award provides Wagner with a total of $19,000 toward tuition in his final two years of undergraduate study plus a paid summer internship at a NOAA laboratory during the summer between his junior and senior years. In addition, the scholarship provides funding to attend two NOAA conferences and attend two scholarly conferences at which he will present the results of his internship research.
A marine biology and molecular biology double-major from Dudley, Massachusetts, Wagner has had a lifelong interest in the ocean, which expanded considerably when he learned to scuba dive while in high school.
“That’s when I knew that I really wanted to study marine biology,” he said. “That’s when I first saw coral bleaching and saw with my own eyes how climate change was affecting the ocean. I decided that I wanted to research it and see if I can help find solutions to it.”
He started almost immediately upon arrival at URI by joining a research team led by URI Assistant Professor Carlos Prada to examine the evolutionary relationships between corals and the symbiotic organisms that live with them.
“There’s a little dinoflagellate that lives in coral that photosynthesizes and produces energy for the coral,” explained Wagner, who is captain of the URI ultimate Frisbee team. “But when the water gets too warm and the dinoflagellate can’t photosynthesize, the coral expels it and the coral turns white, often leading to the coral dying.”
As part of his research, he extracts DNA from coral samples to examine the genetic relationships among the various dinoflagellates found in corals.
“They used to be considered one species, but now we know there are hundreds,” he said. “Using our results, we might be able to show that one species of dinoflagellate can live in many different types of coral, which could help with finding a solution to the coral’s response to climate change, since some dinoflagellates might be better suited to live in warmer temperatures.”
With URI’s campus closed now due to the COVID19 pandemic, Wagner is unable to continue with this research project from home, so he has started a new computer-based project he can conduct remotely. He is using online resources to compare the genetic code of corals living in shallow and deep waters.
After two years of coral research, Wagner hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for the topic, and he is looking forward to conducting more coral research as part of the internship that comes with the Hollings scholarship. Although he hasn’t decided which NOAA laboratory to apply to yet, he deadpanned that “going to a nice warm place wouldn’t be too bad.”
As for his future plans, he’s leaving that up in the air for now, too.
“There’s two different paths I could take,” he said. “I could become a college professor and continue doing research, or maybe this internship at NOAA could open up an opportunity to work at a NOAA research lab. We’ll see how it goes.”
The Hollings scholarship program is designed to increase interest in oceanic and atmospheric science, increase support for environmental stewardship, and recruit students to public service careers at NOAA and other governmental science agencies. URI students interested in applying for the Hollings are encouraged to contact the Office of National Fellowships and Academic Opportunities for guidance.