University of South Florida

USF College of Marine Science


USF CMS student Natalia López Figueroa awarded NOAA Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship

Natalia López Figueroa, CMS Ph.D. candidate

Natalia López Figueroa, CMS Ph.D. candidate

Written by Kristen Kusek, Former Communications Director for USF CMS

CMS Ph.D. candidate Natalia López Figueroa was awarded a Margaret A. Davidson Graduate Fellowship administered by NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management for her work to answer to the following question:

Can upside-down jellies be used as low-cost bioindicators of nutrient pollution or other disturbances in coastal ecosystems? 

The two-year fellowship begins August 1, 2022 and will support López Figueroa’s dissertation work on Cassiopea in the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (JBNERR) in Puerto Rico. One criterion of the fellowship, which includes $45,000 per year in direct support, is that the research takes place within one of the reserves of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.

The work is timely because the benthic ecosystems in the JBNERR are undergoing change in response to human impacts, such as nutrient pollution, said Dr. Pamela Muller, López Figueroa’s advisor.

“Natalia’s profound commitment is the major reason that I postponed retirement to work with her,” said Muller. “She’s also an excellent science communicator, which will serve her well in this work.”

López Figueroa, who is from Puerto Rico, also said the work is timely. “We need to implement high-impact but low-cost bioindicators to provide the rapid environmental assessment necessary to design the optimal mitigation and restoration practices,” she said. One distinctive aspect of her research plan is a citizen science component in which she hopes to involve members of the community in data collection.

“This opportunity means so much more than financial aid,” said López Figueroa. “It is the life-long opportunity I have waited for to work for my people and contribute to the coastal resource management in the place that I grew up in.” 

The hallmark of this fellowship is a professional development, mentoring, and networking opportunities. Reserve mentors will help students network and make connections with the broader coastal management community. Fellows will also have regular training webinars and in-person training courses on searching for a job, project management, and leadership. Lopez-Figueroa is one of 18 fellows in this cohort announced by NOAA.

López Figueroa, who is also active in community engagement and outreach, has received the following accolades and fellowships while at CMS:

  • 2022, Vembu Subramanian MSAC Award, USF-CMS Marine Science Advisory Committee
  • 2021, Field Research Grant, Explorer’s Club South Florida Chapter
  • 2021, Norman Blake Endowed Memorial Fellowship in Marine Science, USF-CMS Graduate Endowed Fellowship
  • 2021-22 and 2022-23, WLP Dorothy L. Morgan Endowed Scholarship in Marine Science, USF Foundation Women in Leadership and Philanthropy
  • 2019 and 2022, Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) Program Alumni Mentor Travel Award, Ecological Society of America
  • 2018, USF College of Marine Science Bridge to the Doctorate Match Fellowship, University of South Florida
  • 2018, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Minority Ph.D. (MPHD) program

 Enjoy some more images from Natalia López Figueroa and her research.

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