By Tiffany Whitfield and Brianna Goodall

Biological Sciences graduate student Kori Carr was awarded a 2024 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. The grant totals $159,000, which will support her financially through her graduate degree, giving her the stability to pursue her passion of wetland plant ecology.

As a first-year master’s student, Carr is setting the bar high. Grant funding begins in the fall of 2024 and will last until the fall of 2027. In addition to research on wetlands impacted by habitat degradation and destruction, she will use the grant to work with and inform K-12 students in the Hampton Roads area about the importance of local wetlands within our communities and protecting wildlife and biodiversity. She hopes to spark an interest in environmental science in kids who’ve had little exposure to it and inspire the next generation of scientists. Part of her grant work will involve helping teachers fill in potential gaps in their lesson plans.

“My focus is more on Norfolk and Portsmouth because I want more younger Black students to be more informed and be more invested in environmental science, especially showing them different opportunities. I want to show them that it's an option,” Carr said. “A lot of the kids in this area don't really know much about the place that they live, and we're surrounded by wetlands here on the coast. It's a great way for me to connect with and give back to my community, and that’s been my main driving factor that I'm doing something that can help a lot in the long run.”

Carr’s research focuses mostly on the Great Dismal Swamp. “It’s a beautiful place situated right on the border of Virginia and North Carolina,” said Carr.

Historically the swamp was a physical and cultural refuge for Indigenous tribes, people of the African diaspora who escaped slavery and marooned peoples.

Her work in the Great Dismal Swamp is based on a deeper connection as a biracial woman of color in S.T.E.M.

“It was a sanctuary for generations of people, and that's another thing that also really interests me and connects me to it,” Carr said. “Wetlands are very valued ecosystems that a lot of people overlook because when you see them in movies, they are kind of [portrayed] like these really evil places that are so spooky and scary. But in all actuality, they're gorgeous, and they're able to be explored; and they're great for things like water quality control and flood management, promoting biodiversity and even recreation, like hunting and fishing.”

Carr said although wetlands play an important role, they’re being destroyed and degraded. She focuses a lot on bald cypress – large trees with big bases and Spanish moss draping from their branches.

Carr was immersed in the world of botany from a young age. She grew up “almost everywhere” but mostly along the Gulf Coast and the east coast due to her parents’ active-duty military status. While her parents were deployed, she was predominantly raised by her grandmother, a forestry major at the University of Kentucky during the early 1970s.

“Forestry and botany was (and still is) a very male dominated field and my grandmother was the only woman in the program,” Carr said. “She endured through it all and graduated even while pregnant. She was always really good with plants, and she still is.”

Carr knew she had a passion for botany but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do at first. In 2016, while her husband was stationed at Naval Station Norfolk, she decided to double major in biological sciences and biochemistry at ODU. It was around her junior year that she met and collaborated with Assistant Professor Taylor Sloey, an expert in wetlands and plant ecology, while she was doing research in swamps and other wetlands.  

Sloey was one of the biggest influences on Carr and was the main catalyst in helping her to pursue graduate school.

“Kori is extremely deserving of this prestigious award,” Sloey said. “As an undergraduate in my lab, she had already obtained her own research funding, led a research project, presented her work at multiple national scientific conferences, and had a publication under review. She has been a valuable contributor to our lab's field data collection and stakeholder outreach efforts. She's taking that same energy and experience into her graduate work. So, while I am ecstatic about her success with the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, I am not surprised by it.”

“I think she’s a great example of just how important it is to have a good mentor who really just wants to see their students thrive,” Carr said of Sloey.

Sloey’s wetlands research offered Carr numerous opportunities such as public speaking conferences, awards, grants and community partnerships. Carr has also participated with the Society of Wetland Scientists and the Ecological Society of America in different diversity programs.

Carr said she is appreciative of everyone who has helped her earn the NSF grant and is in a position to educate and help young people across Hampton Roads learn about wetlands and be a part of the solution.

“It’s nice to be able to look back and see all the people who have paved the way for people like me to be here,” she said. “I would like to think that if more people can associate people that look like me with this type of vocation of scientist, biologist, or plant ecologist or wetland ecologist, then it will open doors for a lot more people to get interested. Even if swamps aren’t your thing, maybe you’ll find something else in nature that inspires you to go out and save the world.”