URI student earns prestigious Hollings Scholarship from NOAA

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Award provides $19,000 toward tuition, plus paid internship

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 11, 2016 – Johann Becker, a junior at the University of Rhode Island, 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 2009, URI students have been awarded 20 Hollings Scholarships, one of the most of any institution in New England.

The award provides students with a total of $19,000 toward tuition in their final two years of undergraduate study plus a paid summer internship at a NOAA lab anywhere in the country. The 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.

A double major in marine biology and ocean engineering from Amherst, Mass., Becker became interested in a career in marine science as a child during visits to the beach, which later led to his interest in ocean engineering. He said engineering provides “the tools for studying the marine environment. They work well together in that sense.”

Becker has had several exciting opportunities to combine both disciplines during his first years at URI. As a Coastal Fellow last summer, he got his first hands-on research experience studying shark behavior by analyzing the routes taken by tagged sharks as the animals migrate around the Atlantic in search of food.

“When you look at the data, you see that sometimes they go straight for a thousand miles without stopping, and then they stop and zigzag around one spot for a month or two before going straight again,” he said. “They’re transiting from one place to another and then staying in one area to feed.”

While much of that experience was spent staring at computers, he also went on several shark fishing trips to capture and tag sharks. He caught several blue sharks but none of his target species, mako sharks. Still, he enjoyed learning about the satellite tracking devices used to monitor shark movement patterns, which sparked his interest in possibly using his engineering skills to create the next generation of high-tech tracking devices or other scientific equipment to aid in marine science research.

The captain of the URI ultimate Frisbee team, which spent spring break competing in Georgia and South Carolina, Becker is working this school year at the Inner Space Center, a facility at the URI Narragansett Bay Campus that uses satellite technologies to bring oceanographic explorations from around the world to scientists and the public in real time. While his primary role is to monitor the video footage broadcast from the three ships transmitting their activities to campus, he said it was exciting to participate in the expeditions, even though he wasn’t aboard the ships.

“Some of the explorations were near Hawaii this year, where it was cool to see places deep in the ocean that have never been seen before,” said Becker, who received the Dr. Malcolm and Nicole Spaulding Scholarship in Ocean Engineering this year. “Lots of potentially new species were discovered, and it was fun to see it happen first hand and chat with the scientists about it.”

As he looks forward to next year’s NOAA internship, Becker can’t help but look beyond to his future career as well.

“I’ll probably start with graduate school,” he said. “And then I’d like a research job that combines marine biology and ocean engineering. Maybe something with sharks, maybe building equipment, and maybe even something that has to do with climate science and renewable offshore energy. We’ll see.”

Pictured above: URI student Johann Becker fishes for mako sharks as part of a research project to track their movements. He has been awarded a Hollings Scholarship from NOAA, the most prestigious U.S. scholarship for students studying marine science.

Photo by Brad Wetherbee