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Rachel Wheat ’09 Awarded National Science Foundation Fellowship

Rachel Wheat ’09 Awarded National Science Foundation Fellowship

Rachel Wheat ’09, who graduated magna cum laude with a degree in biology, has been awarded a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship. She currently is a Ph.D. candidate in the Environmental Studies department at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Her Ph.D. research focuses on the direct and indirect impacts of Pacific salmon availability on terrestrial wildlife, particularly fish predators such as bald eagles and brown bears. She and another UCSC graduate student were among the first to try crowdfunding to generate funds to support a pilot study for their research.

Wheat’s primary research project examines how salmon availability influences the migratory and foraging behavior of bald eagles across multiple spatial scales. “I hope to answer questions such as ‘How closely do eagles track salmon availability across the landscape?’ and ‘How do individual eagles allocate their foraging effort, and is this influenced by salmon abundance?’ This information can be used to inform commercial fisheries management strategies for those fisheries managers who wish to balance trade-offs between economic profit and maintenance of ecosystem processes,” she said.

Among the courses at CC that cemented her interest in ecology were Field Zoology, Tropical Forest and Coral Reef Ecology (taught in Belize), and Ornithology. “There were a lot of hands-on and experiential learning opportunities in these courses that allowed us, as students, to gain insight into what fieldwork in ecology really means. Brian Linkhart taught all three of these courses, and motivated me to continue pursuing opportunities for wildlife-based fieldwork. Shane Heschel was my major adviser, and was extremely encouraging and helpful throughout my degree. Perhaps most of all, I conducted a senior thesis project with Marc Snyder. Marc was (and still is) a fantastic mentor for me, and provided a lot of guidance and feedback while I conducted my first field study, a project examining the impacts of forest management on Abert’s squirrel in Pike National Forest.”

Last year Wheat and another graduate student’s crowdfunding drive to generate funds for their research was successful. They received donations from 100 individuals, totaling more than $10,000. To the best of Wheat’s knowledge, the project was one of the very first ecological studies to be funded using a crowdfunding model. They later wrote a paper about the benefits and risks of using crowdfunding for ecological research, and the paper was published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution in February.

Wheat hopes to work as a field ecologist, perhaps conducting research for a government agency such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or for an NGO.