The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is designed to recognize the efforts of exceptional graduate students, allowing them to make further advances in their field of research. It is a competitive program whose past recipients include Nobel Prize winners. Fellows receive a three-year annual stipend and a cost of education allowance, covering tuition and fees to the institution where the student will be conducting research.
College of Life Sciences alumna, Eleanor DiNuzzo, was recently notified that she will receive an NSF graduate research fellowship for her marine biology research project, an exciting and impressive achievement in the field of science.
Originally from Beaver, Pennsylvania, DiNuzzo has always had a love for the ocean. Since the time she was a little girl, she loved going to the beaches in the Carolinas with her family. While in high school, DiNuzzo attended a young marine biologist program in San Diego, sparking a passion for marine biology that has guided her through her undergraduate studies at BYU.
As an undergraduate, DiNuzzo had many opportunities to volunteer in various labs and participate directly in research. While applying for the NSF GRFP, DiNuzzo worked with Dr. Blaine Griffen, associate professor of biology in the College of Life Sciences, on predator-prey research in intertidal environments. For this research, she also collaborated with Dr. Michael Sheriff, assistant professor of ecology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where DiNuzzo will complete her PhD with a research focus on predator-prey interactions.
As the climate changes, many species are being pushed out of their natural habitats, creating an upsurge in invasive species in other environments. The presence of invasive species changes an environment as other species interact with it. DiNuzzo’s research focuses on trait-mediated indirect interactions, or the changes that take place when an invasive species enters an environment.
“Our system is looking at one type of invasive species, but we’re framing our picture so that the data we find could be applied to many different types of systems with invasive species,” DiNuzzo says.
With a keen interest in animal ecology and marine systems, DiNuzzo hopes to continue researching various animal species and the roles they play in their respective ecosystems. As she looks toward the future, she expresses that she would also like to teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students as a research professor, something she hadn’t thought she would ever want to do.
“I knew I was interested in biology, I knew I was interested in marine systems, but I never saw myself as wanting to teach,” DiNuzzo says. “As I’ve gone through the process of being mentored by other graduate students and faculty members, I’ve developed a passion to pass that on.”
Celebrating her accomplishment and looking forward to beginning her PhD, DiNuzzo encourages students considering the NSF GRFP to apply and not underestimate themselves. The application process, including in-depth literature analysis and grant writing, is a valuable experience, whether or not an applicant receives a fellowship.
For younger undergraduate students, DiNuzzo recommends finding research opportunities as soon as possible.
“Get involved in a research lab and create meaningful connections with some of the great faculty members here [at BYU]. The faculty members have been my best advisors in helping me figure out what career options line up best with my interests.”
When DiNuzzo came to Griffen’s office in the fall of her junior year looking for research opportunities that would help prepare her for graduate school, it was not feasible to start a field research project given the time of year. Instead, Griffen offered her the opportunity to do a computer modeling project, requiring DiNuzzo to not only learn the ecological concepts behind the project, but to learn the basics of computer simulation modeling and computer programming. Her dedication to the project and learning various new concepts impressed Griffen and he involved her many other projects, including research on an invasive species of crab in New England, which DiNuzzo will continue to research in her PhD program.
“Throughout the time that I worked with her, it was exciting to see her grow in her confidence and in her ability to do science. She is one of the hardest working students that I’ve had the pleasure to work with,” Griffen says. “I’m excited to see what she does moving forward. Her NSF Graduate Research Fellowship gives her a rare chance to jump right into her graduate research. I expect great things from her!”