By Tiffany Whitfield

Jem Baldisimo is pursuing a Ph.D. in Ecological Sciences at Old Dominion University and is a Fulbright Scholar and a Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Student Research Fellow. Recently, she was awarded the Ecological Society of America’s 2024 Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA). Because of Baldisimo’s advocacy work and her interest in science policy, she and the other awardees will travel to Washington, D.C., to advance their scientific careers in policy, communication, and career training. She takes being a woman of color in science very seriously and believes her Filipino heritage and her mentors helped shaped who she is today.

Baldisimo is one of the 12 recipients as part of this year’s award. She is the second student from ODU student to receive the GSPA award. Moreover, she will be using all of the skills and advocacy experience that she’s gained over the last decade to be able to contribute to meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Originally from the Philippines, Baldisimo knows the importance of marine sustainability and preserving it for generations. “The Philippines is the center of marine shore fish biodiversity in the world and our word for marine resources is yamang-dagat, which translates to riches of the sea, so my Filipino heritage really inspired me to protect what we have because if we don’t protect our own resources who else will,” said Baldisimo. “In the initial stages of my career, when I graduated from college a lot of the work that I did was in the Philippines.”

While in her homeland, she became a part of a national assessment of coral reef environments allowing her the opportunity to travel to 78 municipalities around the Philippines. “If you could imagine there are 7,641 islands in the Philippines and we were only able to go a small percentage of that, but in that opportunity, I was able to travel about the Philippines in the most remote areas with military escorts,” said Baldisimo. “So, I took it upon myself to find a lot of opportunities to not only help my country but others who rely on the ocean for livelihood and for food security.”

Her research focus is on the extinction risk of fishes in the marine aquarium trade and it has taken her to several continents. Baldisimo’s Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science is from the Ateneo de Manila in the Philippines.  She earned her Master of Environment degree from the University of Melbourne in Australia. Working as an environmental scientist, she was able to work with mining and power companies for environmental monitoring and compliance projects. Also, I did research in China for a class during my master’s where we talked to communities along the Yangtze River to help the local government devise ways to promote water conservation,” said Baldisimo. “Working in science has really helped me to use my background, do research, and travel” said Baldisimo.

Because of her travels, she met ODU’s Biological Sciences Professor & Eminent Scholar Kent Carpenter, Ph.D. at a conference in Hawaii that spurred her to seriously consider ODU for her doctoral program. “Dr. Kent Carpenter did a lot of work in the Philippines, and I wanted to study at an institution that had a lot of research that was not only in the field of marine science but also in my home country in the Philippines,” said Baldisimo. “Luckily I was able to get a scholarship to go to ODU and to work with Dr. Carpenter through the Fulbright.”

Carpenter works in molecular systematics and population genetics. “He is an ichthyologist but at the same time he also heads the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Marine Biodiversity Unit at Old Dominion University,” said Baldisimo. “We manage most of the Marine Red List assessments for the IUCN, which is the world’s authority for assessing the conservation status of all multicellular plants, animals and fungi, and we now focus on extinction risk assessments of marine fishes.”

Baldisimo’s current research at ODU on the extinction risk of fishes in the marine ornamental trade, also known as the marine aquarium trade (MAT), has been heavily influenced by the fishermen she met during a nationwide survey of coral reef livelihoods that she was part of. The long-term sustainability of the MAT is been questionable because of the high volume of fishes traded between countries like the Philippines and the United States. The direct impact of the MAT on fish populations is even less studied. Baldisimo will investigate how MAT fish populations in the Philippines have been affected by more than a hundred years of human impacts and determine a list of species to be prioritized for research and conservation. Baldisimo hopes that her research can generate information useful for researchers, resource managers, and policymakers investigating and working on the sustainability of the MAT.

According to Carpenter, Baldisimo has been a steadfast doctoral student. “Jem has been a key collaborator in my NSF-funded Philippines Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) Project. Her past experience has allowed her to contribute to our fieldwork in the Philippines, which involves scuba diving, fish identifications, market and landing surveys, and liaising with local communities and fisherfolk. She has supported the PIRE Project’s 6-week Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program in the Philippines by being a mentor and resource in getting to know Filipino culture and Visayan language.”

Additionally, she is heavily involved in advocating for the success and quality of life of international students, promoting women in STEM and improving diversity, equity and inclusion. While at ODU, she has worked to make science more inclusive. Baldisimo received the 2020 Monarch Citizen of the Year award and was named the 2022 Ellen Neufeldt Graduate Student Leader of the Year at the Student Engagement and Enrollment Services Leadership Awards at ODU.

“I am thrilled to welcome this latest cohort of Graduate Student Policy Awardees,” said ESA President Shahid Naeem. “The caliber of this year's awardees, as has been true for awardees in our program since its inception, reflects a promising future for ecological research and policy advocacy. These exceptional students exemplify the Society's commitment to nurturing innovative minds dedicated to addressing our most pressing scientific and environmental challenges."  

For Baldisimo ODU has helped her develop academically, professionally and personally. “I’m really thankful for the opportunities that were extended to me, not only because I’m a woman of science but as just a student in the College of Sciences. There have been a lot of opportunities for mentoring not just from my supervisor, but also from the faculty and from the college. Throughout the six years I’ve been here I’ve really been able to support myself and to get a lot of resources that were extended to me by the college and for that I’m really very thankful. Truly, choosing ODU was one of the best choices that I’ve made because it was a pleasant surprise that there was a community here that could really support me every step of the way.”