The making of a scientist

EPSCoR researcher plays critical role in grad student’s journey

Shelby Rinehart arrived on the University of Rhode Island campus for her freshman year in 2009 interested in science, intending to study animal science and taking the pre-vet track. Having completed AP biology in high school, Rinehart, from East Haddam, Conn., landed in Introduction to Ecology with Associate Professor Evan Preisser.

Working in a San Diego swamp, Shelby Rinehart marks cordgrass plants to include them in an experiment where she was looking at how predatory ladybeetle’s prey selection impacts cordgrass growth.

“I fell in love with the class,” remembers Rinehart, 23, now pursuing her Ph.D. in a joint San Diego State University/University of California-Davis doctoral program.

That serendipitous turn of academic events led Rinehart to the lab of Associate Professor Carol Thornber, nearly five years of research experience, published papers, grad school, and, just last week, a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) award.

Thornber, a marine community ecologist and, coincidentally, Preisser’s wife, also is principal investigator for Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). She regularly mentors students on her own and through the RI NSF EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.

“Carol has had a huge influence on my career, from the moment I started at URI,” says Rinehart, URI Class of 2013. “Combined with the help of her husband, Evan, she helped get me where I am today. She cares a lot about her students.

“If not for her advice, I would not be in grad school today.”

Time and effort pay off

And now, the three-year NSF fellowship, which provides a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution, will allow Rinehart to complete her educational journey, which she intends to cap with a faculty position so she can pay forward Thornber’s investment in her.

True to her low-key nature, Rinehart didn’t know she earned the fellowship until her roommate called and said her name was on the award list released by the NSF. The first thing she did was call her Ph.D. advisor, who thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke, but then recognized the excitement in her voice.

“It is crazy!” Rinehart says. “I still haven’t fully wrapped my brain around it.  I guess it has helped to justify all the time and effort I have put into my career thus far and my decision to pursue ecology as a career.”

One of the most competitive fellowships for young scientists, the NSF GRF allows graduate students to focus on their research and eases the financial burden of universities from having to pay them. And, says Rinehart, the fellowship opens up a slew of other opportunities to secure additional funding and join international collaborations that otherwise would not be available.

I want to pay it forward. The opportunity to work with two awesome ecologists helped shape me in a way I couldn’t have done myself. I want to do that for younger scientists.

Rinehart, who started out in Thornber’s lab freshman year, says she finds it difficult to tease out exactly what piece made the critical difference in achieving success; rather, all of the elements combined to allow her to flourish and find her way.

By the time Rinehart headed to San Diego to pursue her Ph.D., she had worked with Thornber for four and a half years, published multiple papers with her and spent the summer before junior year in the SURF program, an intensive, 10-week research experience in the lab of a faculty mentor.

“Carol knew I wanted to hang around in her lab, so she recommended I apply for the SURF,” says Rinehart. “It was the first time I really thought about how to design an experiment. I really gained a lot, following an entire experiment from start to finish, the full process, rather than just the glimpses you get in an academic setting.”

Mentor’s influence runs deep

Shelby Rinehart surveys cordgrass and insect density/abundance in San Dieguito Lagoon, Del Mar, CA.

Now, in the second year of her track toward a Ph.D. in ecology with an emphasis in marine ecology, nearly 3,000 miles from Thornber’s URI lab, Rinehart wades through the salt marshes of San Diego because of her mentor: “My research has sprung off of Carol and Evan’s work — I’m looking at how insects interact with salt marsh plants.”

Her proposal, although still under development, investigates the impact of omnivore prey choice on the salt marsh food web structure.

Thornber says Rinehart proved herself to be both a diligent worker and genuine individual from the moment she stepped in the lab: “As a first year student, she was already mature, dedicated and focused.”

Rinehart quickly grasped techniques, asked detailed ecological questions, and demonstrated intense motivation and creativity, yielding important insights into macroalgal bloom ecology, notes Thornber.

She credits Rinehart for her exceptional persistence, paying her own way through four years of URI, juggling multiple jobs as a peer mentor and undergraduate tutor along with her classes and research, while maintaining a 3.93 grade point average.

Simply put, Thornber says, “Shelby is one of the most impressive, talented, and motivated undergraduates who has conducted research in my laboratory.”

A lasting impact

Looking ahead, Rinehart has her sights set on a faculty position at a smaller institution, where she can work closely with undergraduate and master’s students in the lab.

“I want to teach, but what I’m really passionate about is mentoring students,” says Rinehart. “That’s what I feel is the most important part — the next generation.”

That feeling stems from seeing Thornber interact with the students in her lab. Rinehart recalls the hours spent not just doing research work, but learning from Thornber, whether how to write a manuscript or apply to grad school.

“I want to pay it forward,” Rinehart says. “The opportunity to work with two awesome ecologists helped shape me in a way I couldn’t have done myself. I want to do that for younger scientists.”

Story by Amy Dunkle | Courtesy photos