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First Year Graduate Student Receives $138,000 Grant to Fund Research in Biological Sciences


Ella DiPetto is a first year Master of Science student in the department of biological sciences program in Eric Walters' Lab. The Walters Lab studies a wide range of topics in ecology and evolution pertaining to bird species and communities around the world.

Recently, DiPetto received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, an award that recognizes outstanding graduate students in the sciences. This 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 outstanding graduate 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.

"I am humbled and proud to have helped Ella achieve this major accomplishment," said Walters, department of biological sciences associate professor and director of the 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 boom to our program in Biology, showing that we can attract some of the best students in the nation."

Something that Walters strongly values is having his students apply for research grants right from the start. "There have been times where I am actively writing two or three grants at the same time," said DiPetto. "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 grant writing efforts have paid off resulting in eight additional grants from a variety of sources to fund her research. "My research looks at how birds and mammals are using created oyster reefs along coastal properties," said DiPetto. These artificial oyster reefs are restoration structures that serve both to prevent coastal erosion as well as bolster our 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," said DiPetto. These cameras allow for continuous day and night monitoring, using timelapse photography to take photographs each minute. The large amount of data she is collecting will provide baseline data on the species composition, diversity, and behavior of birds and mammals along these restored structures compared to unrestored natural shorelines.

She has an extensive background in this kind of research previously doing camera monitoring and oyster restoration for South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources for three years after receiving her bachelor's degree in Wildlife Conservation from Virginia Tech.

"It just seemed like the perfect fit, this kind of work that combines my experience and passion for both coastal and avian conservation," said DiPetto. "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 research and studies, DiPetto plans to work with youth in underrepresented areas of Hampton Roads to teach them about STEM research. Moreover, she wants to show how women can be role models in conservation and restoration science.

DiPetto feels very supported by her graduate committee here at ODU as well as from research grants and the NSF. "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. 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 prestigious NSF award, she has also received eight other grants/awards since she started at ODU in August 2021. The lists are as follows:

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