Kaitlyn Tonra ’19 Receives NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

May 19, 2020

Amanda Nagy

Woman smiling on a boat.
Kaitlyn Tonra ’19 has received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tonra

Kaitlyn Tonra, a December 2019 graduate with a degree in biology, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship , an award that supports graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master‘s and doctoral degrees in the United States.

Tonra is enrolled in a marine biology program at Oregon State University, where she will work in the lab of professors Bruce Menge and Jane Lubchenco.

“Their lab is really active with lots of funding and connections, as well as being a part of PISCO (Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans), which is a large consortium of researchers who study marine ecosystems along the West Coast,” says Tonra, who graduated early following a marine-focused study away program at the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island, California.

Tonra says her research interests are centered around marine ecology and more specifically, seaweed and species interactions within the intertidal (the area that is covered by water at high tide but exposed at low tide) and the subtidal zones. “The types of seaweed I am most interested in are kelp and coralline algae, which is a group of calcified seaweeds. I want to study the interactions between groups of algae that might help the ecosystem be resilient when facing stressful conditions, such as increased temperatures or ocean acidification.”

NSF Graduate Research Fellows benefit from a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

“The (Graduate Research Fellowship) is really great because instead of having to rely on a teaching or research assistantship for a stipend, I will be fully funded to do my own research,” Tonra says. “This will allow me to spend three years using that time to take classes, attend conferences, collaborate with other labs, read lots of scientific literature, dig into my own research questions, and start writing papers without having to worry about working for anyone else.” 

While at Oberlin, Tonra sought out multiple research experiences off campus. She received a scholarship from the biology department to attend classes at Friday Harbor Laboratories at the University of Washington in the summer of 2018, where she took a phycology class and completed a research project with the goal of finding the microscopic life stage of kelps within nearby calcified algae. 

In summer 2019, she worked in a lab that studies coral reef ecology at the University at Buffalo. She also completed training to become certified as a scientific SCUBA diver and spent the summer in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, with the same lab. There, they studied the population dynamics of octocorals. Tonra designed an experiment to study the settlement behavior of a common species of octocoral, and she also worked on several other projects that are on their way to publication.

At Oberlin, Tonra was a member of Pyle Co-op, a resident assistant in Dascomb Hall, and a founder of the History and Philosophy of Science Society. 

“My biggest highlight was teaching the Marine Biology and Ecology ExCo. There were no other marine-focused classes at the time, and I wanted to fix that by offering an ExCo. It was a ton of fun to design the class, and teaching it was amazing! It was by far the most rewarding part of Oberlin for me.” 

Tonra says her ultimate goal is to be a professor so she can teach and continue to do research, or work for an organization like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the Nature Conservancy. 


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