ESA Selects 2018 Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award Recipients

RELEASE DATE: Wednesday, 21 March 2018
Contact: Alison Mize, gro.asenull@nosila, (202) 833-8773 ext. 205



The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is pleased to announce the winners of this year’s Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA). This award provides graduate students with the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. for policy experience and training. Ten recipients were selected for this year’s award: Aaron W. Baumgardner (California State University, Bakersfield), Stephen R. Elser (Arizona State University), Ann Marie Gawel (Iowa State University), Emily E. Graves (University of California, Davis), Chelsea L. Merriman (Boise State University), Steffanie M. Munguía (Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey), Vera W. Pfeiffer (University of Wisconsin – Madison), Johnny J. Quispe (Rutgers University), Urooj S. Raja (University of Colorado Boulder), and Jenna M. Sullivan (Oregon State University).

These students will travel to D.C. in April to learn about the legislative process and federal science funding, to hear from ecologists working in federal agencies, and to meet with their Members of Congress on Capitol Hill. This Congressional Visits Day, organized and sponsored by ESA, offers GSPA recipients the chance to interact with policymakers and discuss the importance of federal funding for science, in particular the biological and ecological sciences.

“Now more than ever, we need scientists who can meaningfully share their science with policymakers,” said Rich Pouyat, president of ESA. “The Katherine S. McCarter policy award is an exciting opportunity for the next generation of ecologists to explore science policy in our Nation’s capital. It gives them the opportunity to develop the skills that will make them effective communicators of the ecological and environmental sciences and in so doing help lawmakers to make informed, science-based decisions.”  

ESA’s policy award was renamed this year in honor of Katherine McCarter, who served as executive director of the Society for 20 years until her retirement in January of 2018.


2018 ESA Graduate Student Policy Award Recipients 


Aaron W. Baumgardner

Aaron Baumgardner is an M.S. candidate in biology at California State University, Bakersfield. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, his current research focuses on the climate extremes of drought and their influences on vegetation health in Southern California’s chaparral shrublands. Future plans include pursuing a Ph.D. and expanding his research beyond shrublands to other plant community types. Baumgardner’s interest is in bridging ecological research with the policymaking process to help craft and shape environmental policy. He received a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of Akron.


Stephen R. Elser

Stephen Elser is interested in the ecosystem services provided by green infrastructure and how local practitioners use it to strengthen cities’ resilience to extreme weather events. Elser is pursuing a Ph.D. in the environmental life sciences at Arizona State University and is a graduate fellow in the Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network. For the past nine months, he has researched the ecosystem services of urban wetlands in Valdivia, Chile. Before beginning his Ph.D. studies, he worked for two years as a research technician in a stream ecology lab at Baylor University to establish the phosphorus threshold in Oklahoma’s scenic rivers to prevent undesirable algal blooms. Elser received a Bachelor of Science in environmental science and a minor in sustainability from the University of Notre Dame.


Ann Marie Gawel

Ann Marie Gawel is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Program at Iowa State University. She studies the roles of non-native species in the novel ecosystems of the island of Guam, where native seed-dispersers (birds) are functionally absent due to predation by the invasive brown tree snake. Her focus is on non-native mammals and how they shape plant communities through seed dispersal, seed predation, and herbivory. How the public perceives the management of these species is also part of her research. Gawel is of Micronesian heritage and has spent most of her life living in the Micronesian islands of Pohnpei and Guam. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, and a master’s from the University of Guam studying the effects of non-native ungulates in limestone karst forests. While there, she founded the Green Army environmental service organization and served on the University President’s Green Initiative board. She also worked for four years as an endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Guam and Hawaii. Although an ecologist by training, Gawel is also interested in the human dimensions of conservation and environmental policy, especially in the context of culture and history in the U.S. territories.


Emily E. Graves

Emily Graves is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in ecology at the University of California (UC), Davis. Her research investigates the intersections of movement ecology and conservation physiology to understand the potential role that agricultural pesticides play in the population dynamics of bird species of conservation concern. She is currently utilizing animal tracking technology to discover how differences in tricolored blackbird (Agelaius tricolor) foraging behavior affect colony health and reproductive success in natural and working landscapes, and how these differences are impacted by agricultural pesticides. Graves is a co-founder of Science-Informed Leadership, a graduate student-led effort to promote evidence-based governance and decision-making in the executive branch, and served as National Volunteer Coordinator during their advocacy campaign in 2017. She is currently a co-chair of the Policy Committee in the Society for Conservation Biology – Davis Chapter. Graves holds a Master of Science and Bachelor of Science degree in avian sciences from UC Davis.


Chelsea L. Merriman

Chelsea Merriman is a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences at Boise State University. Her research focuses on using interdisciplinary methods to understand the larger impacts of landscape and chemical diversity on the reproduction of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), as well as the impacts on sagebrush in the steppe. Utilizing geospatial, biological, and econometric tools and analyses, she hopes to tell a holistic story about the temporal and physiological trade-offs both plants and animals make to survive and reproduce in a changing environment. Merriman received her Bachelor of Science in environmental science and anthropology from the University of Notre Dame in 2014. A Boise native, she spends every waking moment that she is not working outdoors, hiking, and fishing with her friends, family, and dog Rosie.


Steffanie M. Munguía

Steffanie Munguía is completing her Master of Arts in international environmental policy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) at Monterey. She is specifically interested in researching the ecological impacts of natural resource management decisions in the human contexts in which they are made. Before coming to MIIS, she received two Bachelor of Science degrees in integrative animal biology and environmental science and policy from the University of South Florida. While there, Munguía conducted ecological research on house sparrow invasion expansion in Africa, native amphibian populations in central Florida, grassland songbird breeding behavior in Kansas, and invasive iguanas in South Florida. She attended an ESA Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Success (SEEDS) workshop in Puerto Rico in April 2017. Munguía is committed to enhancing access to scientific research for diverse communities and believes that government support of science is necessary for resource management and continued growth, discovery, and innovation for generations to come.


Vera W. Pfeiffer

Vera Pfeiffer is a Ph.D. candidate at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Plants and pollinators hold a fascination for her and motivate her to study plant and pollinator diversity, pollinator foraging and plant-pollinator network structure, and resilience from a broader ecological network perspective. Pfeiffer has worked with Long-term Ecological Research scientists in the Oregon Cascades Mountains; landscape ecologists and geneticists at the University of Wisconsin – Madison; and math and physics faculty at the Evolution and Ecology program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, Austria. She recently returned from Europe, where she spent a year as a visiting ecology Ph.D. student at Mendel University through a U.S. student Fulbright research fellowship. While there, she conducted a project focused on ecological boundaries, specifically bumble bee foraging practices across agricultural-urban and agricultural-forest edge landscapes. Pfeiffer is now finishing her Ph.D. and working to communicate what she has learned about the influence of landscape on our native pollinators and plant-pollinator interactions and hoping to provide a stronger, more informed context for effective and productive policy development.


Johnny J. Quispe

Johnny Quispe is a doctoral student at Rutgers University’s Department of Ecology and Evolution investigating the effects of sea-level rise to coastal wetlands and the vulnerabilities of coastal areas prone to flooding, identifying areas for restoration and flooding mitigation, and quantifying damage from future flooding. He aims to connect and reconnect communities with their shorelines while learning from locals about their coasts’ past; especially in low-income inner cities where communities might not have access to waterfronts and do not have the opportunity to interact with the surrounding waterways. Quispe plans to expand his research into disadvantaged coastal communities by working to preserve cultural identity, fostering sustainable relationships, and inspiring minorities to pursue science careers. His previous work experience encompassed conservation, restoration, and environmental remediation projects in New Jersey in the nonprofit, public, and academic sectors. Quispe earned a Bachelor of Science in international environmental policy, institutions, and behaviors at Rutgers University.


Urooj S. Raja

Urooj Raja is a doctoral student in environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where her dissertation research examines innovative media technologies with a focus on virtual reality and augmented reality mediums to devise innovative solutions to ‘wicked’ problems like climate change. Before this, she worked as a humanitarian adviser at the United Nations and did a stint at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Other work experience for Raja is noteworthy. She served as an instructor in Columbia University’s Community Impact initiative, the Harlem Children’s Zone and also as a staffer for a New York State Assembly member. Raja graduated from Princeton University with honors, and she is the recipient of a 2016 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the 2016 Environmental Fellowship from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. The New York Times and The Washington Post published articles featuring Raja’s research.

Jenna M. Sullivan

Jenna Sullivan is a Ph.D. candidate in Drs. Bruce Menge and Jane Lubchenco’s marine community ecology lab in the Integrative Biology Department at Oregon State University. In her research, she utilizes the diverse, well-studied system of the Oregon coast rocky intertidal to gain insights into how human-induced changes, including ocean acidification and top predator loss, will affect individual species and their interactions. Sullivan’s research focuses on the keystone sea star (Pisaster ochraceus), and she is currently characterizing the community effects of the decline in this top predator as a result of sea star wasting disease. Following Lubchenco’s lead, she delves into the role of science in policy and management and on ways to successfully communicate with and engage diverse audiences. Sullivan received an undergraduate degree in biology from Dartmouth College.



Click here to see a Flickr album with more photos of this year’s award winners.



The Ecological Society of America, founded in 1915, is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge, committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 9,000 member Society publishes five journals and a membership bulletin and broadly shares ecological information through policy, media outreach, and education initiatives. The Society’s Annual Meeting attracts 4,000 attendees and features the most recent advances in ecological science. Visit the ESA website at