Congratulations to three EEB graduate students, Audra Huffmeyer, Bryan Juarez and Amanda Meier, who have won prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation. As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the GRF Program has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers.

“Please join me in congratulating Audra, Bryan and Amanda (and their advisors) on their impressive achievement. There were 16.5K applicants this year, but only 2K awards,” wrote EEB Professor and Chair Diarmaid Ó Foighil.

Huffmeyer’s project, titled "DNA methylation and sperm form and function in felids," will compare sperm from several felid species, most of them endangered: the domestic cat, Siberian tiger, fishing cat, African lion, cheetah, ocelot, clouded leopard and the Florida panther. Huffmeyer will “look at how an epigenetic (non-genetic) mechanism called DNA methylation (a type of DNA modification that disrupts the expression of genes) effects sperm, form and function of inbred and endangered species,” Huffmeyer explained. “The goal of this project is to determine how this non-genetic mechanism contributes to a distinctive male infertility issue present in rare, endangered felids. The knowledge generated from this project will include opportunities for exploring innovative methods for identifying males that are ideal candidates for conservation breeding.” Huffmeyer’s advisor is Professor Liliana Cortés-Ortiz.

Juarez is working on the study and development of multidimensional, comparative trait analyses. “It is common for biologists and evolutionary biologists to study one trait in isolation and make inferences about the organism, population or community as a whole,” Juarez explained. “My research will seek to develop new ways of studying many traits at the same time as well as testing whether the interpretations we make based on one trait are general and accurate or not when compared to multiple traits.” His proposed study system was the group of earliest semi-aquatic four-legged tetrapods and their relatives, but he recently began studying both extinct and modern amphibians because they evolved a "quirk" very early in their evolutionary history. Juarez’s advisors are Professors Dan Rabosky and Lauren Sallan.

Meier is investigating the community-wide implications of a belowground mutualist of plants, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.  “Specifically, I am examining how arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, by altering plant chemistry, influence interactions among milkweed plants, insect herbivores, and the natural enemies of these herbivores,” Meier said. “Understanding the intricacies of these interactions may improve ecological restoration efforts by evaluating the contributions of particular mycorrhizal fungi present in the soil. Also, by understanding how mycorrhizae function in the interactions between insect herbivores and their natural enemies, we may be able to use mycorrhizal fungi to improve pest management while increasing nutrient uptake and stress tolerance of crop plants.” Meier’s advisor is Professor Mark Hunter.

Fellows receive an annual stipend of $34,000 for three years for tuition and fees along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, Google founder, Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author, Steven Levitt.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions.