Ph.D. Student Receives Almost $130,000 from Sigma Xi Grant and NSF Fellowship

MELBOURNE, FLA. –Florida Institute of Technology Ph.D. candidate Lorian Schweikert, Biological Sciences Department, was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship for $126,000 for her proposal, “Adaptive Plasticity of the Retina in Response to Environmental Cues.” Schweikert is pursuing a doctorate in marine biology, researching Atlantic tarpon at Florida Tech, and expects to graduate in spring 2015. Her advisor is Michael Grace, Biological Science Department professor and associate dean of Florida Tech’s College of Science.

The oldest fellowship of its kind, the NSF fellowship is a highly competitive and prestigious award, which is based on intellectual merit, proposed broader impacts, past research experience and future goals. The program, which encourages diversity, recognizes outstanding graduate students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. This award will support Schweikert while she focuses on her research.

Schweikert said, “I heard about the NSF fellowship five years ago when I started to consider graduate school. I never dreamt that I would receive the fellowship. I am incredibly grateful to my advisor, Dr. Grace. His encouragement and support have given me the confidence to pursue opportunities that I believed were beyond my reach and the freedom to perform the research I love.”

She also received a $2,500 Sigma Xi Grant-in-Aid of Research (GIAR). Founded in 1886, Sigma Xi publishes the award-winning American Scientist magazine and has evolved into an international research society that supports and nurtures communication and cooperation between science and engineering researchers. The GIAR awards grant up to $1,000 to students from all areas of science and engineering. Larger awards of $2,500 can be awarded to vision research and $5,000 to astronomy research.

The Greek phrase Spoudon Xynones, the society’s motto, means “Companions in Zealous Research.” Schweikert is an associate member of Sigma Xi, and Dr. Grace has been a member since he received two such awards while pursuing his Ph.D.

“Sigma Xi awarded me the maximum award for vision research and this is particularly rare because approximately only 20 percent of applications get funded and in most cases less than the requested amount is awarded,” said Schweikert, a Long Island, N.Y., native. The grant will fund the portion of her doctoral research, which determines the role of environmental light intensity and quality, such as color, in driving changes in the retinal structure and sensitivity of marine fish.

Schweikert’s research focuses on vision in the Atlantic tarpon, one of the most important gamefish of the western hemisphere. She is studying how the photoreceptor layer of the retina changes in dramatic ways over the course of life (unlike the human retina which does not change overtime and is unlikely to repair following damage). Her work may aid in the conservation of this threatened species by providing insight into the tarpon’s poorly understood behavioral ecology, and she hopes that the results of her work may also aid in the fight to prevent retinal diseases in people.

In 2009, Schweikert earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in marine science from the University of Tampa in Florida. In addition to her recent awards, she is a recipient of the Philanthropic Educational Organization scholarship award of $15,000.

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