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First-Year Graduate Student in Biological Sciences Receives $138,000 NSF Grant

By Tiffany Whitfield

A first-year Master of Science student in biological sciences has already been recognized as "outstanding" by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

This spring, Ella DiPetto received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, an award that recognizes outstanding graduate students in the sciences. The fellowship includes three years of financial support, including an annual stipend, totaling $138,000 to support recipients while they conduct their research. The award is given to students with potential for significant research achievements in STEM. DiPetto was ranked in the top 15% of more than 13,000 applicants from across the United States.

DiPetto works in Eric Walters' lab, where studies of a wide range of topics in ecology and evolution pertaining to bird species and communities around the world are conducted.

"I am humbled and proud to have helped Ella achieve this major accomplishment," said Walters, biological sciences associate professor and director of the department's zoological museum. "Being awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is one of the highest honors a graduate student can achieve and being awarded a fellowship worth $138,000 is a message to Ella that the NSF panelists believe in her ability to significantly contribute to our nation's research, teaching and innovations in science. This is a major boon to our program in biology, showing that we can attract some of the best students in the nation."

Walters strongly values having his students apply for grants right from the start of their research.

"There have been times where I am actively writing two or three grants at the same time," DiPetto said. "It has helped me so much not only in improving my writing but in developing my research ideas. Whether these grants are small and local, statewide or national, there are so many organizations out there that want to support emerging scientists in their work."

DiPetto's efforts have paid off, resulting in eight additional grants from a variety of sources to fund her research looking at how birds and mammals are using created oyster reefs along coastal properties.

Artificial oyster reefs are restoration structures that prevent coastal erosion as well as bolster native oyster populations, which are at a small fraction of historical numbers.

"A large portion of previous grant funds have gone to the purchasing of wildlife game trail cameras, which I am using to monitor these oyster reefs at 10 sites in southeastern Virginia," DiPetto said.

These cameras allow for continuous day and night monitoring, using time-lapse photography to take pictures each minute. The large amount of data she is collecting will provide baseline data on species composition, diversity and behavior of birds and mammals along these restored structures compared to unrestored natural shorelines.

DiPetto has professional experience with camera monitoring and oyster restoration. She spent three years working for South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources after receiving her bachelor's degree in wildlife conservation from Virginia Tech.

"ODU just seemed like the perfect fit; this kind of work combines my experience and passion for both coastal and avian conservation," DiPetto said. "I am so lucky to be working in the Walters Lab. Students are encouraged to create unique research projects that fit their interests."

In addition to her studies, DiPetto plans to work with youth in underrepresented areas of Hampton Roads to teach them about STEM research. She also wants to show how women can be role models in conservation and restoration science.

DiPetto appreciates the support of her graduate committee at ODU, and the organizations funding her research through grants.

"I'm excited to be able to put my full attention into my research, a comfort that unfortunately isn't given to all graduate students," she said. "I am excited to work together with the community to provide new insight on how effective coastal restoration measures are at providing ecological benefits to faunal communities."

In addition to the NSF award, here is a list of the other grants/awards she has earned since she started at ODU in August 2021:

  • Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory Student Grant
  • Hampton Roads Sanitation District Environmental Improvement Award
  • Northern Neck Audubon Society Student Research Grant
  • Old Dominion University Graduate Summer Award
  • Old Dominion University Paul W. Kirk Jr. Wetland Research Award
  • Virginia Association of Professional Soil Science John C. Nicholson Memorial Scholarship
  • Virginia Society of Ornithology Conservation Grant
  • Washington Biologists' Field Club Student Grant

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