Current Recipients of the Graduate Student Fellowship

The Philomathia Graduate Fellowship in the Environmental Sciences provides fellowships for graduate students studying issues related to the environment at UC Berkeley. Students are nominated to receive the award on the basis of their high level of academic distinction and exceptional promise.

2021 - 2022 Recipients


Jackie ChildersJACKIE CHILDERS
Museum of Vertebrate Zoology
Ph.D. Candidate

Jackie’s research focuses on understanding the processes that underlie species diversification and phenotypic evolution by integrating analysis of character trait data with phylogenetic approaches. For her dissertation she is studying the Weavers (family Ploceidae), an Old World radiation of sparrow-like birds distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The 117 species that comprise the family exhibit marked variation in plumage color, bill morphology, sociality and mating systems, and are best known for their elaborately designed nests. The primary goals of her research are to characterize the nest diversity across species, identify the selective forces that have influenced nest design throughout the family, and investigate molecular patterns of evolution using whole genomes. As part of this work Jackie has collected morphological data from museum specimens and their nests by working in natural history collections in both the U.S. and Europe. On campus, with the help of her undergraduate research assistants, she combines this data with DNA sequence data in order to address the broader goals of her research.  Jackie's website.

 


Benjamin Karinbenjamin Karin
integrative biology
Ph.D. Candidate

Tropical rainforests hold most of the world’s biodiversity, yet the mechanisms leading to species diversification in these regions are still not well-understood. Skinks are the most diverse family of lizards with over 1,700 species, and the incredible diversity of skinks that have evolved on mountains on Sulawesi and Borneo provide a unique opportunity to study how species have diverged across elevational gradients. Ben, with his lab and colleagues in Indonesia and Malaysia, has conducted several major expeditions to remote mountains on Borneo and Sulawesi to investigate how elevational adaptation may act as a mechanism for species divergence. His research focuses on three genera of skinks (Eutropis, Sphenomorphus, and Tytthoscincus), each of which present strikingly different ecological strategies and rates of species diversification. By integrating genetic data and morphological variation with thermal physiological modeling across six different mountains on Sulawesi and two on Borneo, Ben is working to understand how these lizards have adapted to and diversified in their unique environments. Ben’s research has implications for how species will adapt to climate change, and his work to catalog undescribed species in this biodiversity hotspot is critical to conserving tropical biodiversity.

 


Adam UlianaAdam Uliana
chemistry
Ph.D. Candidate

Two out of every three people in the world now face severe water scarcity at least one month per year, due to factors such as growing water consumption, rising populations, and climate change. Water sources that are abundant (such as seawater) could supply the water that society needs, but these water sources need to be desalinated and detoxified before they can be used. Adam’s research focuses on developing new water purification methods that enable environmental remediation and supply safe water for human consumption. As part of his doctoral research, Adam applies synthetic chemistry to create new sorbent materials - called porous aromatic frameworks - and membranes that can be tuned to selectively capture deleterious pollutants from water. These contaminants include heavy metals, organic micropollutants, and salts.

 


Kirsten VersterKirsten Verster
Integrative Biology
Ph.D. Candidate

Kirsten is a 5th year PhD candidate in the Whiteman Lab investigating how horizontal gene transfer can drive the evolution of novel adaptations in animals. Specifically, she is studying the evolution and function of horizontally transferred cytolethal distending toxin B (cdtB) genes in insects. cdtB encodes a DNase I enzyme that  was transferred at least five times independently from insect symbiont-associated phages to drosophilids flies, galling midges and aphids.  Interestingly, these horizontally transferred genes may play a role in protecting these insects from deadly parasitoid wasps. She is interrogating the evolution and function of cdtB using a combination of techniques including phylogenetics, CRISPR/Cas9 mutagenesis, bioinformatics, and immunohistochemistry. Kirsten's goal is to build a research and education program that incorporates her passion for animal evolution and functional genomics. 

 


Ella VisherELisa VISHER
Integrative Biology
Ph.D. Candidate

Why specialists exist in the face of broad-niched generalists remains a central question for the biological sciences. At a fundamental level, this question underpins most of our theories for why there is so much genetic, phenotypic, and species diversity in nature. Elisa Visher’s work focuses on the nature of trade-offs to resistance and infectivity breadth in host-parasite systems and on the environmental factors that bias systems towards selecting for specialists or generalists. They primarily use experimental evolution techniques in the Plodia interpunctella (Indian meal moth) and baculovirus model system to explore the geometry of trade-offs with host resistance, the effects of spatial structure and host genetic diversity on parasite niche breadth evolution, and the factors driving the coevolution of diversification. For more information about Elisa's research, see their website.

 


Jeannie WilkeningJeannie Wilkening
Civil and environmental engineering
PH.D. Candidate

Globally, plants move massive amounts of water from the soil to the atmosphere through the process of transpiration. This process is not only physiologically important for the plant since it enables the uptake of carbon, but it also represents a major component of the water cycle. Jeannie’s research aims to explore how physical drivers (landscape characteristics, climate, etc.) interact with biological drivers (plant physiology) to determine how these interactions impact plant water use and plant health outcomes, particularly when water is limited. She explores these plant-water interactions using both modeling approaches and experimental/field studies in a variety of contexts. Better understanding of these dynamics can help to inform management of specific environmental challenges, with parts of her dissertation work focusing on landscape rehabilitation of former mining sites and containment of a plant pathogen. More broadly, her work helps us to understand and predict plant water use, water availability, and ecosystem function, particularly as we move towards a future where many parts of the world are hotter and drier under climate change.


Wenjing XuWENJING XU
Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management
Ph.D. Candidate

Wildlife migration carries important ecological functions and social values in many ecosystems, especially in arid and semi-arid rangeland. However, linear infrastructures such as fencing have proliferated around the world. Wenjing's search focuses on ecological responses and consequences of migratory pronghorn and mule deer to landscape fragmentation caused by fencing in the rangeland of the American West. Using GPS tracking data and remote sensing imagery, Wenjing quantifies animals' behavioral responses to linear barriers and examines the ecological consequences of such changes in animal movement and habitat use. Her study adds empirical insights to the emerging subdiscipline of fence ecology and offers direct guidance to conservation decisions that aim to maintain and improve landscape connectivity.