Catie Alves, a second-year PhD student in Dr. John Bruno’s lab, was recently awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The prestigious fellowship provides financial support for graduate students pursuing masters and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. 2,000 students are selected through a national competition where they submit both a research and personal statement, undergraduate and graduate transcripts, and three letters of recommendation. Applicants are evaluated by reviewers according to the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts of their application. See below for an excerpt from Catie’s statements to learn more about her research interests and where her passion for science began.
I grew up in the small town of Narragansett, Rhode Island, a quintessential coastal New England town with its postcard-quality seawall tracing the coast, tourists flooding the beaches in the summertime, and old friends reuniting at the grocery store. I have traveled to many places since my upbringing, but my hometown formed the foundation to my identity. Living in Narragansett sparked within me a passion for the ocean, for I spent my summers playing in the shallow waters of the local beaches. This passion grew deeper when I developed an excitement for learning and interest in scientific inquiry from field trips to the coast with enthusiastic teachers. I became fascinated with the natural world – it was a mystery I wanted to understand. This was the driving force behind my decision to study biological sciences during my undergraduate career.
To fully accomplish my academic goals, I needed to leave the comfort of my New England home. This was one of my toughest decisions to make because I was forging a path for my future that no one in my immediate family had done before: attending a 4-year college. My mother raised my sister and me on her own with an endless amount of love and determination. Leaving Narragansett meant leaving behind my family and the comfort of a community that fostered my growth and interest in the natural world. But, it was time for me to extend past the limits of my comfort zone and embark on the biggest adventure of my life.
Leaving Narragansett to attend Connecticut College was my catalyst to new opportunities. I have had diverse research experiences and have been involved in my local communities. This has given me a unique skill set that combines research, education, and leadership. My background in academic and community enrichment guided my decision to pursue advanced study in marine ecology in the interdisciplinary Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These experiences helped form my career goals, which lie at the interface between effective science, policy, and community-based conservation. I have seen the power of establishing collaboration, using the scientific method, and taking an interdisciplinary approach to conservation and I continue to find my place among it all.
The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship will enable me to achieve the goal of developing cutting edge scientific research in coral reef ecology and fisheries management by enabling me the flexibility to develop long-term field projects. My research interests involve using Belize as a case study to evaluate community based fisheries management (CBFM) within a social-ecological systems (SES) framework. I seek to quantify the efficacy of Belize’s recently implemented Territorial User Rights for Fishing (TURF) program in restoring overfished stocks, increasing biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, and improving the livelihood of fishers.
I will conduct a socio-economic survey of fishers in the program and couple my findings with ecological surveys of the marine communities along the Belizean Barrier Reef. Information gleaned from my dissertation has the potential to identify a win-win scenario between maintaining the livelihoods of the commercial and subsistence fishers in Belize and preserving coral reef fish biodiversity.
I will also incorporate public outreach and education to increase scientific literacy and engagement of the public, both among the public in Belize and in my local community in North Carolina. I will collaborate with local institutions to co-organize public forums, workdays and outreach events for citizens of Belize to educate them about their local marine ecosystems. For outreach within my community in North Carolina, I have already developed a lesson plan for grades 8-12 on marine food webs for the Scientific Research and Education Network (SciREN). I hope to incorporate the findings of this study into a different lesson plan that focuses on marine resource management decision making. Both of these outreach programs will show the public the importance of interdisciplinary conservation science, and encourage environmental stewardship among the next generation. Community-based environmental management techniques are emerging across the globe as some of the most promising ways to combat anthropogenic threats to ecosystems, and I look forward to becoming a part of that endeavor.