ESA Announces 2010 Graduate Student Policy Award Winners

Graduate students from Cornell, University of Hawaii, and Notre Dame will travel to the nation’s capital to speak to lawmakers about federal support of biological sciences

WASHINGTON, DC — The Ecological Society of America (ESA), a professional organization of 10,000 ecological scientists, is pleased to announce the recipients of its 2010 Graduate Student Policy Award.   The award affords ESA graduate students the opportunity to participate in two days of science policy activities, including meetings with congressional offices. This year’s winners are: Alexis Erwin (Cornell University), Colin Phifer (University of Hawaii), and Patrick Shirey (University of Notre Dame).

All three students have demonstrated their commitment to interfacing science and public policy and the ESA Award will allow them to build on their experiences.   Erwin, Phifer, and Shirey will travel to Washington, DC in April to participate in a congressional visits event sponsored by the Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC), co-chaired by ESA.  The three will meet with congressional offices, be briefed by policy leaders on federal funding issues, and meet other scientists from across the country.  The BESC event, co-sponsored with the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions, will focus on the need for strong federal support of biological and agricultural research and education.

Alexis ErwinAlexis Erwin’s Ph.D. research at Cornell University focuses on plant reproductive strategy and is supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.  Erwin notes that “Federal investment in the American science and technology (S&T) enterprise affects every sector of our society.  Support for fundamental research is critical to generating new scientific knowledge that not only increases our understanding of the natural world, but also enhances US competitiveness in international markets, improves the sustainability of modern societies, and introduces innovative practices in environmental stewardship.”  In addition to participating in science outreach activities, Erwin also helped prepare a report that synthesized socio-ecological data to develop indicators to monitor the health of a New York lake.  The report has already been partially implemented by resource managers.

Colin PhiferColin Phifer is pursuing a Master’s degree in conservation biology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.  With several years experience as an environmental educator, Phifer has engaged a variety of audiences by telling “the stories of science.”  As a museum docent and a communications coordinator, Phifer has interacted with both children and adults on science and environmental topics and is pursuing a career that blends his interest in resource management, education, and public policy.  Phifer points out that: “Federal investment in science and technology surpasses ideological divides: both Democrat and Republican administrations support America’s renewed investment in science.”  He notes that former President George W. Bush challenged Congress to fund scientific advancement in his 2008 State of the Union and Address and that President Obama did likewise when he stated that “Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

Patrick ShireyPatrick Shirey’s Ph.D. research focuses on stream and river ecology, as well as natural resources policy.  Shirey, who also holds a law degree, points out that federally funded science helps leverage support from private industry: “Research in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame provides an excellent example of the importance of federal investment in fundamental ecological research.  Federal funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies have encouraged private support for research in our department from The Nature Conservancy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Frank Eck Family, and the Ford Family.”  Shirey holds a Fellowship from NSF’s Global Linkages of Biology, the Environment, and Society program.  His policy experience includes internships with Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Forestry and Bureau of Parks and Shirey has also participated in an array of policy and communications training workshops.

The ESA Graduate Student Policy Award is one of several ways the Society works to offer its graduate student members opportunities to gain public policy experience.  The Society also provides policy training during its annual meeting and by request throughout the year.  ESA graduate student members also may run—through ESA’s Student Section—to serve on several ESA standing committees, including the Public Affairs Committee, which works closely with ESA’s Washington, DC-based Public Affairs Office ( and focuses on activities to connect ecological science and scientists with policymakers and the media.