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College of Science and Mathematics

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Cal Poly Bio Students Awarded NSF Research Fellowships

Erin Aiello motors out to study eel grass restoration in Morro Bay.

Erin Aiello motors out to study eel grass restoration in Morro Bay.

Two Cal Poly biological sciences students this year have been awarded National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships.

Erin Aiello, a graduate student, and Heather Neldner, a senior, will each receive $34,000 for three years within a five-year period in addition to a cost-of-education allowance as part of the fellowships.

The competitive fellowship was awarded nationally to 2,000 students this year. The awardees come from a wide range of scientific disciplines and states.

“I am overjoyed that the National Science Foundation believes in me as a scientist,” said Neldner, who will be working with biological sciences Professor Emily Taylor in the master’s program this fall. “It's quite validating, and I feel very optimistic about my future in academia.”

Neldner’s research will center on the physiology of the Northern Pacific rattlesnake. As an undergraduate, she worked with biology professor Gita Kolluru on the behavioral ecology of the metallic livebearer, a freshwater fish found in Cuba. Her master’s research, Neldner says, will prepare her to pursue a doctorate, where she plans to study behavioral ecology in reptiles.

Aiello’s graduate research is focused on the restoration of eelgrass, a sea grass found in coastal estuaries that experienced a mass die-off in Morro Bay. She is working to understand which sites in Morro Bay would be a good place to transplant eelgrass in future restoration efforts. This work includes understanding what makes various sites conducive to eelgrass growth and survival.

“Not only has this funding given me the means, it has also given me the confidence to follow my dreams,” said Aiello, who almost gave up on writing the essay but found encouragement from Crystal Castillo, a biological sciences graduate student who received a graduate research fellowship in 2016.

Both students say Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing model and the College of Science and Mathematics’ hands-on learning opportunities played a pivotal role in being selected for one of the prestigious fellowships.

“I’m grateful for the support and guidance I have received from my peers and mentors at Cal Poly,” Neldner said. “Without them, and Cal Poly's emphasis on practical experience for undergraduates, none of this would be possible.”

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