The University of San Diego’s Marine Science graduate program is enjoying a first this academic year. Sacramento’s Liz Lopez has arrived on campus as the program’s first-ever National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient.
The award, which in 2013 was given to 2,000 students from a pool of more than 13,000 applicants nationwide, covers Lopez’s tuition and living costs.
“It’s the golden ticket for graduate students, it’s a phenomenal fellowship to win,” said Drew Talley, USD assistant professor for Marine Science and Environmental Studies, who already has Lopez working among his student lab research group.
Lopez, who graduated from California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) this year, chose USD over Western Washington and Oregon State universities due to an opportunity to expand her scientific research experience and to do meaningful community outreach through marine science.
“I first heard about the program at USD through a friend who had specifically worked in Drew’s lab and told me about the work he does in Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja California and the work he does for outreach. I first corresponded with him by email. When I came here and saw what he does, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really unique experience that I couldn’t get anywhere else.’”
Her research topic, still broad at this stage, consists of looking at the connection between land and sea in a different ecosystem than Lopez said she’s ever worked. “I’ve never done terrestrial work before, except for small things in classes, but I look forward to having an experience on land and being hands-on, even more so than anything I’ve done in the water.”
The outreach component should be very rewarding. She and Talley went to Bahia, a contained and preserved area in Baja California that gives science researchers unique research opportunities with multiple terrains in one large space. Research has been done on its wetlands, in its waters, and on the islands immersed in the middle of it all.
Lopez will do research there, but she’ll also be actively involved in summer outreach there with Hoover High School students from San Diego’s City Heights, a diverse population with young men and women who’ve developed a passion for studying science through the nationally acclaimed nonprofit Ocean Discovery Institute (ODI).
Talley, a hands-on science mentor and ODI Science Advisory Board member, said Lopez brings great credentials to USD that, along with her mentoring skills and enthusiasm, will be a valuable supporter of the young scientists.
“It’s not tough to find someone who is really interested in outreach and it’s not tough to find someone who is a good scientist, but to get both in the same person is rare,” Talley said. “In the field, Liz is phenomenal. She thinks more like a collaborator than a grad student. She comes up with her own ideas and doesn’t have to be manually directed to the next thing. She’s already thinking ahead and knows on a big scale what she wants to do. She’s amazing.”
Lopez enjoyed getting a glimpse of Bahia and looks forward to working in the ODI program next summer. In the meantime, she’s taking graduate courses, participated in a research trip aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans with other USD students, and she wants to immerse herself into the USD community, lending a hand to its McNair Scholars program and a local chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).
“I’ve talked with Drew about working with these groups because I feel it’s important. More graduate students need to be involved in diversity issues,” she said. “It’s something I feel a lot of people run into this with outreach programs or service to the community. In the science community, there’s more pressure to involve the community and outreach in your research, but it’s often rushed and sprinkled on top of the research. But what I’ve seen so far from Drew is that this is at the heart, the integral part, of the research.”
Asked what Lopez remembers about her first encounter with science, she smiles reflectively: “Some of my fondest memories are when my dad would take me on nature walks and he’d teach me the names of ornamental plants he knew from landscaping.”
Interest in plants, flowers and gardening remain as passions for Lopez who, later as an undergrad at CSUMB, rallied support for and helped construct a community garden space.
Lopez said her interest in high school initially focused on art, but science turned into a passion soon after one of her teachers offered a bold proclamation that still resonates.
“My teacher, who I think was an environmental activist, told me one day in class, ‘If you want to help the world, you need to be a marine scientist. We need more marine scientists.’ Something about that just clicked. I thought it would be cool. I didn’t know all that it entailed. I then talked to a friend who said if he could do anything, he’d want to be a marine scientist and to work at an aquarium. I agreed, and I thought I could do that, too. I applied at Monterey Bay and it was my top choice.”
Once she went to college, her pathway became clearer. She joined the McNair Scholars program and got connected through CSUMB’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center.
“It catapulted me,” she said. “It gave me the skills I needed to look for my own opportunities, gave me a network and the chance to attend conferences. If I hadn’t been in this program, I wouldn’t have known to come here to USD.”
She did two different research projects as an undergrad — monitoring marine-protected areas along the Southern California coast with CSUMB Professor and mentor Dr. James Lindholm, and at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center with OSU Professor Dr. Sarah Henkel.
The latter project enabled Lopez to spend summers in Henkel’s Benthic Ecology Lab in Newport, Ore. Lopez got hands-on research experience on Henkel’s project, titled, “Ecological effects of Wave Energy development on Benthic communities” project. Benthic means anything that is associated with or occurring at the bottom of a body of water.
When graduation neared, she considered her graduate school options and applied for the NSF fellowship. When she found out she’d been selected, Lopez felt fortunate and, at the same time, motivated for the next step. Coupling her experiences and a desire to genuinely help others, her arrival at USD appears to be a good fit.
“Being a good scientist is important,” she said, “but being a good mentor is one of the reasons why I came here. Drew’s an exemplary mentor. I’m excited to learn some of his mentoring style and to get more exposure and experience working with Drew, ODI and undergraduate students.”
Talley said Lopez is a welcome addition for a student lab environment that is thriving on budding undergrads from USD’s McNair Scholars program (Alex Blanco), a strong corps of graduate students, including Anai Novoa, who first worked for Talley in Bahia during the former’s freshman year of high school, and others who are part of a collaborative learning environment for all.
“There’s this tiered type of mentoring going on that’s been shown to be so effective for the students,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of having a great research program that’s fueled by graduate and undergrad students where the ties to both the USD community and City Heights community is strong.”
Lopez already feels like part of the USD family, but she also has the full support of her own family — parents, Jose and Carol, and younger siblings, Maisey and Nick. “They’re my inspiration,” she said. “When I have doubts, they are always there for me to say ‘Liz, keep going.’ I definitely want to make my parents proud and I want to be a good example for my sister and brother.”
— Ryan T. Blystone