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Five UofSC Students Win NOAA Hollings Scholarship

Posted on: June 4, 2020
By Maddox McKibben-Greene

Five University of South Carolina students have been chosen as Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholars, marking 61 total University of South Carolina students who have received the prestigious award since its inception in 2005.  This year, 123 scholars were selected from applicants throughout the United States.

Rising juniors Benjamin Hurley, Christy Mueller, Samantha Rush, Melissa Shugart and Emma Sylves-Berry may have different experiences, majors and career goals, but they all hope to work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to promote its message of conservation and environmental awareness.

Hollings Scholars study a variety of disciplines, from biological and life sciences to mathematics to social behavioral sciences. Two of this year’s Hollings Scholars, Hurley and Mueller, are marine science majors with plans of devoting their future careers to conservation efforts.

“I hope to work in marine conservation policy, so being recognized by an organization involved in exactly that is not only rewarding in terms of the opportunities that it will give me but also extremely validating that I am making solid progress along my career path and that my work resonates with NOAA's own mission,” Hurley says.

Shugart, a chemistry major, has wanted to work in climate change research and oceanic studies long before attending UofSC and says that the award is a result of her previous work on and off campus in conservation and environmental awareness.

“Being a NOAA Hollings Scholar makes me feel like the work that I've put in throughout my academic career has amounted to something real – this amazing opportunity to do what I love – and I'm incredibly grateful to everyone who's shown me support throughout this journey,” Shugart says.

In addition to her research, Shugart continues to make a positive impact on the Carolina community through her role as Community Outreach Manager for UofSC’s EcoReps organization, a student-led effort to advance University Housing’s commitment to sustainable living.

Sylves-Berry, a political science and environmental science major, has hopes of working in environmental law. She says that being chosen as a Hollings Scholar is meaningful recognition of her personal passions and academic track.

“It is a huge honor and reassurance that someone else saw my passion and hard work and chose to believe in me. I believe that a Hollings Scholar is someone who is inquisitive and passionate about protecting our environment,” Sylves-Berry says.

Hollings Scholars are expected to become scientists, policy-makers or educators in the U.S. oceanic and atmospheric workforce. Participation in the Hollings Scholarship Program exposes rising juniors and seniors to the mission of NOAA and to our nation’s long history of oceanic and atmospheric stewardship, in honor of former South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, who was lauded for his conservation efforts throughout his career.

As part of the NOAA Hollings Scholarship, a 10-week paid summer internship is also included, as well as funding for the scholars to present their NOAA research projects at two national scientific conferences, and this year’s Hollings Scholars are distinguished by their unique and varied research experiences.

Mueller’s passion for environmental conservation efforts began with her first internship experience with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, encouraging her to become involved in similar efforts such as the UofSC student chapter of the South Carolina American Water Works Association.

Three of this year’s Hollings Scholars – Hurley, Rush, and Sylves-Berry – are also part of UofSC’s Top Scholars Program, a community of the university’s most distinguished merit award winners.

Hurley has worked with Sustainable Carolina’s Green Certification Team and with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby to promote the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, a U.S. House bill to curb the country’s carbon pollution. Hurley also spent last summer with Ocean Connections, a nonprofit seal and sea lion facility in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Rush, a chemistry major, is currently conducting research concerning drinking water sanitation processes and coinciding disinfection byproducts (DBPs) under the direction and mentorship of Dr. Susan Richardson. Through this research, she is also involved in the first statewide analysis of salinity in bodies of water.  Rush’s focus on the environment and climate change stems directly from her research experiences.  She hopes to conduct chemistry-related oceanic research in the future and is excited that the NOAA Hollings scholarship offers the opportunity to be a part of that exact research through their ocean acidification program.

Sylves-Berry plans to study abroad in Quito and the Galapagos during the fall 2020 semester through a program offering field-based research classes as well as opportunities to work with locals on a community-based project. She will then participate in the South Carolina Honors College’s Washington Semester program and take part-time classes while interning with an environmental organization in Washington D.C.

Although some of the students’ plans have changed for the upcoming summer, several will be continuing research in their respective fields remotely.

Shugart will carry on her research with her current mentor, Dr. Annie Bourbonnais from the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment, working to prepare a research manuscript studying nitrous oxide in seawater that will later be used as part of her Honors project.  Mueller, who is currently working under Dr. David Fuente in the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment, will assist with his research project on water sanitation issues in rural Alaska.

When this year’s NOAA Hollings Scholars are not conducting research, they enjoy being active outside, devoting time to creativity and enjoying life as a UofSC student and the unique experiences that come with it.

“As someone who craves social stimulation, I love nothing more than to get out and spend time with those important to me, whether that’s losing my voice in the Williams-Brice student section, going on group hikes or just playing cards in our apartment,” Hurley says.

Mueller is also on the UofSC Equestrian Team and plays viola in the university’s campus orchestra.

“If I am not riding or playing the viola, then I can be found hiking, kayaking or birding anywhere I can,” Mueller says.

Throughout the fellowship application process, this year’s NOAA Hollings Scholars say that they have learned more about themselves as well as gained personal, professional and academic confidence with the help of their mentors and the NFSP office.

“I am very grateful for the network of faculty and staff who are willing to go out on a limb to support me in my extracurricular efforts,” Hurley says. “As I applied for the Hollings, I was also applying to several other internships, and for all of these positions, countless faculty were willing to write letters, advise me on my essays and otherwise provide support.”

Rush says that being chosen as a Hollings Scholar has increased her confidence in her own work and academic pursuits.

“I learned that I am more capable than I previously thought,” Rush says. “It seems like other people always find, apply [to] and win awards. It is not hard to find awards that match your interests, especially with the help of the NFSP staff, and winning just isn’t too far-fetched either.”

These students were supported by National Fellowships and Scholar Programs, along with the support and guidance from faculty Claudia Benitez-Nelson, Gwen Geidel and Tammi Richardson from UofSC’s School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment.

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