Science graduate receives scholarship for doctoral studies in marine biology



After marine biology student Leeza-Marie Rodriguez graduated from Cal State Fullerton this week, she will be the first in her family to graduate from college — and the first to be accepted into a doctoral program.

Rodriguez will attend UC Santa Barbara this fall to study ecology, evolution and marine biology.

“I will work to understand how marine environments are responding to climate change. I want to test various restoration and conservation strategies focused on coastal and intertidal marine habitats,” she said.

Leeza Marie Rodriguez
Leeza-Marie Rodriguez studies the non-native bryozoan colony Amathia verticillata.

“Ultimately, my goal is to provide insight into realistic and equitable conservation methods that can help preserve marine ecosystems in the face of ocean acidification. The combination of traditional ecological concepts, environmental education and socio-economic issues will enable my postgraduate work to simultaneously protect coastal habitat and marginalized communities.

To help her achieve her goal of graduate school, Rodriguez is the recipient of the highly competitive 2022 National Science Foundation Research Fellowship. The prestigious scholarship provides three years of financial support over a five-year scholarship period – an annual stipend of $34,000 and a stipend of $12,000 towards the cost of education at the graduate institution .

The award supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, or math—who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral studies at accredited U.S. institutions.

“This scholarship will allow for a much smoother and more equitable transition to higher education. I will be able to focus on completing and creating a research project in my PhD program – instead of worrying about lack of funding and it becoming a barrier to getting my PhD,” he said. she declared.

For the past three years, Rodriguez has conducted undergraduate research under the mentorship of Danielle Zacherl, Professor of Biological Sciences, and gained valuable laboratory and field skills to prepare for her graduate studies. Zacherl was also instrumental in helping her apply for the scholarship.

Leeza Rodriguez working in the lab
Leeza-Marie Rodriguez in the campus lab.

“Dr. Zacherl’s enthusiasm and passion for marine ecology and conservation work inspired me the most to pursue my research career,” Rodriguez said.

Zacherl shared that Rodriguez has the enthusiasm and academic acumen for a career in research.

“Leeza impressed me deeply with her dedication, insight, creativity and scholarship,” Zacherl said. “As a Mexican-American woman, she is an underrepresented scholar with great research aptitude and endless potential for even more growth.”

Rodriguez is also a 2021-22 CSUF Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Fellow. The NSF program aims to increase the number of underrepresented students graduating in STEM disciplines.

“Leeza is a very determined, hardworking and exemplary researcher. She participated in all program activities with enthusiasm and responded punctually to program requirements,” noted Zair Ibragimov, Mathematics Professor and CSUF LSAMP Program Director. “Without a doubt, receiving this highly competitive scholarship is a great achievement and honor.”

Spaghetti-like Aquatic Invertebrate Research

Rodriguez’s undergraduate research project focuses on a colony of non-native bryozoans, known as Amathia verticillata, which may impact restoration work on native Olympia oysters that Zacherl and his students have participated along the Orange County coast.

Non-native bryozoans are microscopic aquatic invertebrates that live in colonies and look like a big pile of spaghetti, Rodriguez explained.

whorled amathia
This image depicts the spaghetti-like bryozoan in Newport Bay alongside native Olympia oyster restoration beds. 1 credit: Leeza-Marie Rodriguez

“When I first heard about the species I was going to study and it looked like spaghetti, my curiosity was piqued,” she said. “I’ve always admired the diversity of marine ecosystems, especially on a physiological level, so combining my love for the field and working with invertebrates, this project suited me perfectly.”

Through her study, she discovered that this bryozoan could have both positive and negative impacts on oyster populations.

“That was one of the most fascinating things for me about this project because it shows that under very specific environmental conditions, non-native species can be an ally of native species,” said Rodriguez, who works at the finalizing his thesis on the project and plans to publish the results in a scientific journal.

Rodriguez’s career goal is to work at a federal agency and continue his research in marine conservation efforts.

“Coastal habitats are already feeling the impacts of climate change, and by the end of the century they could be catastrophically altered, displacing millions of people, especially low-income and historically excluded people.”

Cal State Fullerton’s grand opening celebrations will take place May 23-26.

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