ESA Selects 2020 Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award Recipients

March 2, 2020
For immediate release

Contact: Alison Mize, gro.asenull@nosila, (202) 833-8773 ext. 205


The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is honored to announce this year’s Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA) recipients. This award provides graduate students with the opportunity to receive policy and communication training in Washington, DC before they meet lawmakers.

ESA selected twelve students to receive the award: Tiffany L. Betras (University of Pittsburgh), Callie R. Chappell (Stanford University), Claire E. Couch (Oregon State University), Ayo Andra J. Deas (The Graduate Center, City University of New York), Ed Higgins (University of Oklahoma), Renata Poulton Kamakura (Duke University), Alexander K. Killion (University of Michigan), Mayda Nathan (University of Maryland), Vasavi Prakash (Auburn University), Natali R. Ramirez-Bullon (Florida State University), Bradley A. Strickland (Florida International University) and Harrison R. Watson (Princeton University).

Students will travel to DC March 25-26 to learn about the federal legislative process and science funding, to hear from ecologists working in federal agencies, and to meet with their Members of Congress on Capitol Hill. This Congressional Visit 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.

“ESA is pleased to bring a record number of early-career ecologists from across the country and around the world to DC to hone their communication skills and engage in science policy,” said ESA President Osvaldo Sala, “Scientists who are confident in their ability to communicate can foster a dialogue  with decision-makers that is now needed more than ever.”

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

Read more here about the award winners on ESA’s Ecotone blog.

Tiffany L. Betras

Tiffany Betras is a third-year doctoral student in Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research investigates the causes and consequences of nonnative plant invasions. She is also examining the degree that high deer densities throughout much of the Eastern Deciduous Forest Biome contribute to invasional meltdowns. Betras was awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation and an Andrew Mellon Predoctoral Fellowship from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently serves on the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Council as a graduate student representative and as a consultant on the Pitt Campus Tree Advisory Committee. Prior to entering graduate school, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and French from The Ohio State University and a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from Youngstown State University.


Callie R. Chappell

Callie Chappell is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. Chappell works in the community ecology lab of Tadashi Fukami and studies how genetic variation influences how communities assemble. She addresses these questions by studying microbes that live in the nectar of flowers. With a background in bioengineering, Chappell is particularly interested in the conservation and policy impacts of gene editing wild organisms and the cascading impacts that genetic variation can have on ecological and evolutionary processes. Outside of the lab, she leads several organizations that communicate science to the public. These include leading Stanford student organizations Science Teaching through Art (STAR) and Stanford Science Policy Group (SSPG). On the national level, she is the chair of the American Society of Naturalists’ graduate student council. Chappell received a joint BS and MS from the University of Michigan. Currently, she receives support from a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a Stanford Graduate Fellowship. Additionally, she is a Graduate Ethics Fellow with Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society.


Claire E. Couch

Claire Couch is a Ph.D. candidate in Integrative Biology at Oregon State University, under the supervision of Dr. Anna Jolles. She studies how host-associated microbial communities change across time and space, as well as their relationships with host health and disease. Her study systems include African buffalo, bighorn sheep and elk and her work includes a wide array of fieldwork, laboratory analysis and bioinformatics. A passion for ecosystem conservation has motivated her interest in science policy. She has worked with several local environmental advocacy groups and recently founded the Student Science Policy Club at Oregon State University to help bring together young scientists who want to make a difference. Couch graduated from the University of Portland with a BS in Biology.


Ayo Andra J. Deas

Ayo Andra J. Deas is a Ph.D. student in Earth and Environmental Sciences at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). His research explores how tree growth responds to water availability over a natural environmental gradient. Deas’ evaluation of these interactions is interdisciplinary and utilizes dendrochronological and remote sensing analyses. His current project is in the Black Rock Forest in the Hudson Highlands Region of New York. Originally born in Brooklyn, NY, Deas received his Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics with a concentration in Secondary Education and minor in Spanish from St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, New York. He obtained his Master of Arts degree in Mathematics Education from CUNY Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, New York. Deas has over 16 years of teaching experience that range from primary to higher education and he holds a New York State Professional Teacher Certificate in Mathematics for grades 7-12. He is dedicated to bridging the integration gap between underrepresented communities and STEM, in order to promote the vitality of authentic inclusion by maintaining his accessibility within New York City’s primary, secondary, and higher education systems.


Ed Higgins

Ed Higgins is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oklahoma, Norman. His research investigates the ecosystem services provided by freshwater mussels. Specifically, he is looking at interactions between mussels and the environmental ‘microbiome’ and the ecosystem functions associated with those interactions. Higgins is a National Research Traineeship Fellow, and through this program, has conducted research on stakeholder values of ecosystem services in a regional water conflict. He is also interested in researching the impacts of scientific societies on federal water policy. Currently, he is doing a stint as an intern at the National Science Board Office in Alexandria, Virginia. Higgins received a BA in Biology and Anthropology from Boston University.


Renata Poulton Kamakura

Renata Poulton Kamakura is a first-year Ph.D. student in Ecology at Duke University. Her research is in the Galapagos Islands looking at changes in land cover/vegetation across both space and time. She is interested in how land cover change influences and is influenced by water flows and human resource use. Kamakura hopes to do collaborative work with researchers in the natural, physical, and social sciences to look at the complicated ways in which humans can live sustainably with and in their environments. Prior to starting her Ph.D., she worked for the U.S. Forest Service and a conservation non-profit, Columbia Land Trust, to learn more about how scientific research was used and valued by some of the people doing the conservation and restoration work. Kamakura received her BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, with a minor in Environmental and Urban Studies, from the University of Chicago.


Alexander K. Killion

Alex Killion is earning a Ph.D. at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He was awarded Future Investigator in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology for the  novel use of spaceborne data to improve wildlife biodiversity estimates. His research lies at the intersection of sustainable development and wildlife conservation where he uses an interdisciplinary approach to understand drivers of human-wildlife coexistence in shared landscapes. Killion holds a MS in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University and a BA in Biology from Augustana College.


Mayda Nathan

Mayda Nathan is a Ph.D. student in the Entomology program at the University of Maryland (UMD). She caught the entomology ‘bug’ as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, where she worked with labs that explored the effects of invasive plants and climate on insect diversity in California and New Hampshire. Before graduate school, Nathan worked for the Nature Conservancy, the US Forest Service and a joint UMD-Department of Energy research institute, where she developed a deep interest in science-driven conservation, management, and policy. Her dissertation research at UMD centers on the recent northward range expansion of Florida’s mangroves, and the ways in which mangrove-associated insects both influence and are influenced by the encroachment of mangroves into northern Florida’s salt marshes.


Vasavi Prakash

Vasavi Prakash is a Ph.D. candidate at the Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife. Her research focuses on human-wildlife conflicts, particularly tigers in India. With an increasing population, fragmenting habitats and poaching threats, tigers face a challenge of surviving in their natural habitat. Conflicts arise due to increased demands on shared resources leading to a negative attitude towards conservation. She is looking for effective solutions which can be implemented at policy level to augment conservation efforts of large felids. Before graduate school she worked with the Indian government where her responsibilities included forest and wildlife management. She is proud Indian and holds a Masters in Forestry from IGNFA, India.


Natali R. Ramirez-Bullon

Natali Ramirez-Bullon is a Ph.D. candidate in Biology at Florida State University (FSU). She is interested in understanding what makes a species rare, and how some rare species are able to persist over time while others decline to extinction. For her dissertation, she is developing a quantitative framework to set conservation priorities for plant species. As part of her research, she is conducting field comparisons of the demography of rare and common sister taxa. Bullon is a principal investigator for a National Science Foundation-funded National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center Graduate Pursuit that investigates how public engagement with biodiversity influences conservation policy and how it relates to conservation success. She completed her BS in Biological Science in the ecology program of Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina in Lima, Peru. Her undergraduate thesis investigated seed storage, germination and phenology of seven species of cacti to develop protocols for ex-situ conservation of these taxa. As part of her master’s degree at FSU, she constructed and analyzed a demographic model for a threatened dioecious spurge (Euphorbia telephioides). Bullon has experience working for conservation projects and as a field biologist for environmental consulting companies and US Fish and Wildlife Service in Panama City, Florida.


Bradley A. Strickland

Bradley A. Strickland is a Ph.D. candidate in Biological Sciences at Florida International University. His research interests generally center on understanding the ecological roles and importance of large predators. With global declines in many predator populations, Bradley’s work obtaining reliable estimates of abundance, understanding animal behavior, and investigating how animals deal with changing environmental conditions is important for maintaining healthy ecosystems. His doctoral research is focused on how alligators engineer and create habitats for other organisms. He has also investigated questions such as how juvenile bull sharks respond to major hurricanes and how to accurately measure the abundance of crocodilians in complex river habitats. Discovery Channel, Forbes, Telemundo, CBS and an array of other media outlets have featured his research. He is an Everglades Foundation Fellow and has collaborated with government agencies, public interest groups, and indigenous peoples to move toward solving pressing environmental problems and conservation issues. Strickland earned an MS in Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture at Mississippi State University and a BS in Environmental Biology at Berry College.


Harrison R. Watson

Harrison Watson is a first-year Ph.D. student at Princeton University studying ecology. His research currently focuses on the roles of herbivores and fires on carbon cycling and carbon sequestration in savannas in southern and eastern Africa. In studying these players, he hopes to quantify the impacts of fire and herbivores on carbon storage and integrate this knowledge into existing models of carbon cycling. Throughout his undergraduate studies, he trained in scientific communication, regularly engaging local communities of his hometowns in the southeast region of the US. Watson also published stories of towns’ innovations in technology that featured environmental science. Watson earned a BS in Marine Biology from Jackson State University.



The Ecological Society of America, founded in 1915, is the worlds 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