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GCA Scholarships Recipients: The Garden Club of America Award in Coastal Wetlands Studies


2018 Johnny Quispe

Johnny Quispe is a doctoral student in the Ecology and Evolution Graduate Program at Rutgers University. He is investigating the survival of tidal marshes under two sea-level rise (SLR) scenarios by installing small weirs along the Raritan River in New Jersey. His research seeks to understand the e ects of SLR on marshes dominated by common reed (Phragmites australis) and smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterni ora), as well as how these two wetland species help marshes keep pace with SLR.  The goal of Quispe’s research is to assist in the development of policy recommendations for local and regional planners to ensure the conservation of tidal marshes, and help coastal communities reduce  ooding and other damage from future storms through the use of natural defenses.

2018 Katherin Culatta

Katherine Culatta is a master’s student in plant biology North Carolina State University. Her project is titled “Taxonomy, Population Genetics, and Status Assessment of Cape Fear Spatterdock (Nuphar sagittifolia).” Her research will inform conservation decisions regarding this aquatic plant endemic to the southeastern Atlantic coastal plains. A combined morphological and genetic approach will be used to determine the plant’s taxonomic limits and describe its genetic diversity.

2018 Serina Wittyngham

Serina Wittyngham is a PhD candidate in biological sciences at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William & Mary. Her research goal is to understand how the chemistry of salt marsh plants can combat herbivory and, in turn, protect shorelines. Herbivory of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterni ora) can create patches of denuded marsh. In some patches, plants are re-growing but are not consumed.  is study will examine if changes in plant chemistry are responsible for protecting new plants from further consumption, thus increasing the resiliency of the salt marsh.

2017 Janet Walker

Janet Walker is a PhD candidate in the Joint Doctoral Program in Ecology at the University of California, Davis, and San Diego State University. Her research will focus on the role of burrowing crabs and how they structure California salt marsh plant communities. Crabs can burrow into soils surrounding marsh vegetation and thereby alleviate submergence and hypoxic stress for plants. The impacts of crabs may shape the distribution and abundance of plant species, which may be especially pronounced at lower latitudes where temperaturerelated stress is already high. Identifying factors that mitigate this environmental stress (e.g., the activities of burrowing crabs) will contribute to conservation strategies and acknowledge the resilience of these ecosystems in the face of climate change.

2017 Samantha Apgar

Samantha Apgar is a PhD candidate in Dr. Chris Elphick’s laboratory at the University of Connecticut. She is studying the extinction risk of specialist tidal marsh birds in coastal Connecticut. As sea levels rise, ground nesting tidal marsh birds will be more vulnerable to nest failure due to increased flooding. She will evaluate how different aspects of the nesting ecology of the seaside sparrow, willet, and clapper rail make each species more or less likely to fledge chicks over time. Specifically, she will study how the nest sites, nest structures, egg qualities, and chick and adult behaviors in response to flooding vary among species. She wants to better understand how specialist species in tidal marshes will fare as large-scale change occurs.

2017 Elisabeth B. Powell

Elisabeth B. Powell is a master’s student in the Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science Department (BEES) at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She studies gas flux in salt marshes to reveal the potential for climate change mitigation from vegetate coastal habitats. Her master’s thesis will examine the effect of open marsh water management practices (OMWM) on the carbon balance of tidal marshes in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. OMWM is a mosquito control technique that is widely used along the Atlantic Coast. She will examine the gas flux from the open water systems as well as intact marsh and dead plant areas to determine if the carbon balance has been altered by this management practice

2017 Nate Stott

Nate Stott is a master’s student at Bowling Green University in Ohio. His project is titled “Use of Reconnected Lake Erie Wetlands by Fishes: Comparing Native Pike and Invasive Common Carp Spawning Migrations.” His research aims to estimate northern pike (Esox lucius) populations in various Lake Erie coastal wetlands and determine if a more active management strategy is needed to ensure their success. By quantifying fish movement into coastal wetlands, a more robust management strategy may be needed to allow native northern pike into coastal wetlands while denying access to invasive common carp. Carp are known to degrade Laurentian Great Lakes coastal wetland habitats.

2016 Stephen K. Formel

Stephen K. Formel is a PhD candidate in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department of Tulane University. He will investigate the effects of endophytes on plant growth in smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) in Louisiana. Endophytes are fungi and bacteria that live inside plants without causing disease. Many endophytes have been found to enhance plant growth and help the plant resist stress. However, endophytes are not incorporated into salt marsh management strategies, in part because they are not well-studied in salt marsh plants. By inoculating smooth cordgrass with combinations of endophytes, he will identify the endophytes with potential for improving plant fitness in conservation and restoration.

2016 Molly Albecker

Molly Albecker is a PhD candidate at East Carolina University. She studies mechanisms of adaptation to elevated salinity levels in coastal amphibians. It is widely believed that saltwater intrusion into coastal freshwater wetlands will reduce coastal biodiversity, yet she has found thriving populations of green tree frog (Hyla cinerea) in wetlands with salinity levels typically lethal to amphibians. This finding suggests that some species may be able to adapt to the new environmental conditions. She will characterize physiological endpoints in adult tree frogs across coastal and inland populations following exposure to saltwater. Her study will reveal the physiological mechanisms of saltwater tolerance in frogs and describe how responses differ among populations.

2016 Dani Weissman

Dani Weissman is a master’s student in Dr. Kate Tully's Agroecology Lab in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park and a Graduate Research Assistant at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis, MD. Her research is to quantify the increase of phosphate levels in the wetlands of the Choptank River Watershed of the Chesapeake Bay due to saltwater intrusion and upstream phosphorus inputs from agricultural applications. She employs a data synthesis approach with field and laboratory studies in order to develop a better picture of water quality trends in this human-altered system and to identify the biogeochemical mechanisms of nutrient release. The overall goal of her research is to provide information to policy-makers for the revision of best management practices.



Scholarship Opportunities Abound

The Garden Club of America offers 28 merit-based scholarships and fellowships in 12 areas related to conservation, ecology, horticulture, and pollinator research. In 2018, more than $308,400 was awarded to 65 scholars.

In its inaugural year, the Montine M. Freeman Scholarship in Native Plant Studies was awarded to Angela Merriken and Dr. Uma Venkatesh.

Read more about the new Scholarship and the recipients.