Biology Master’s Student Chosen For Prestigious Pew Fellowship

A biology master’s student’s research just received a big endorsement from the prestigious Pew Charitable Trusts and the Florida Wildlife Commission.

The national and state organizations are funding the research of Michelle Shaffer, ’16, who has spent the past five years studying the ecosystems and wildlife in the Indian River Lagoon in conjunction with the National Center for Integrated Coastal Research (UCF Coastal). Her project will explore the impacts of seagrass decline and other changes in the environment on the abundance and distribution of forage fish and their predators living in the Indian River Lagoon.

“I’m still trying to convince myself that’s it real,” Shaffer said. “Working with Pew and the FWC were career goals, so it’s pretty incredible to get this opportunity at an early stage.”

The fellowship is one of two granted each year through FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI). This is the fellowship’s third year. The foundation of Shaffer’s research is a massive data set FWRI has been compiling for decades. This information provides a comprehensive picture of the lagoon’s health over decades, and can offer conservation specialists tools and information to make smart, targeted decisions to protect the waterway’s health.

Shaffer plans to expand on that data set using software to bring her research to life. The public’s understanding and involvement is key to protecting the lagoon, Shaffer said, so they need to picture the research in its proper context. That’s why she will be using satellite mapping, processed in a geographic information system (GIS), to develop a web tool that will help agencies communicate their findings.

“Even if you’re not into biology, these fish are economically important,” Shaffer explained. “People are traveling here frequently to fish, and they’re buying equipment, staying in hotels and eating locally. If we don’t protect them, that’s going to impact the community.”

Shaffer credits her advisor Assistant Professor Kristy A. Lewis, Ph.D., for the success of her proposal. She spent hours patiently going through the process, tightening up the application and connecting her with previous fellows.

“It’s really helpful to have her guidance building this proposal,” Shaffer said.

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