CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Throughout the years, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s graduate students and faculty have received recognition for their hard work in science, engineering research and innovation. Kendall Johnson, a Marine Biology doctoral student in Dean Frank Pezold’s Fish Systematics and Conversation Lab recently received an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and was selected for the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI) for U.S. Graduate Students’ program. Johnson developed a research project which allowed her to gain first-hand experience investigating and studying abroad at the Shanghai Ocean University in China from June through August 2017.
“The trip really helped me get a head start on the research for my thesis,” said Johnson. “I was able to prepare many samples for DNA sequencing during my time in China, and became confident in my ability to perform the techniques on my own for future work back in the United States.”
Johnson had just finished her first year at the Island University when she received one of 250 NSF awards offered across the country. Johnson developed a research project investigating early evolution among gobies – small, reef-dwelling fishes within the family Gobiidae – by using a new gene-capture method. The innovative study led her to become part of a cohort of 40 researchers selected to collaborate with scientists in China.
In Shanghai, she, alongside Dr. Chenhong Li, a host scientist, worked on developing a new gene-capture method which permitted identifying thousands of genes that cause the unique features exhibited by different groups of gobies.
“The gobies are fascinating vertebrates that had a rapid period of diversification in their early history,” Johnson said. “Their branches on the evolutionary tree come so close together they form a knot that is difficult to pull apart. Sorting them out helps us to understand how all the diverse body forms and life styles began and evolved from one another.”
During her first week in the program, Johnson received pre-departure orientation in Beijing and had the opportunity to meet other summer research fellows. After this orientation, Johnson had two months of intensive scientific guidance to help her continue working on her research project at her host laboratory in Shanghai.
“I got to know my fellow labmates well as they helped me get accustomed to their lab,” said Johnson. “We became great friends during my time in China while preparing DNA samples and working on mastering the protocols.”
The East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes focuses on introducing U.S. graduate students to East Asia and Pacific science and engineering in the context of a research setting, and creating scientific relationships for future collaboration with foreign counterparts. The participants of this program have the opportunity to work in seven different scientific and technological host laboratories across the world including Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore or Taiwan. In addition, a summer stipend of $5,000, roundtrip airplane tickets and in-country living expenses for the two-month program are provided to all the students.
For Johnson, this achievement was an opportunity to learn and expand the knowledge she gained at A&M-Corpus Christi. The major research award motivated her to begin new projects; among them, her doctoral thesis and the long-term career goal of having a research or faculty position at an established university. For now, she is full of innovative scientific information that will help her until her anticipated graduation in spring 2020.
This year, the NSF has awarded two Islander students EAPSI awards. Alongside Johnson, Heidi Heim-Ballew received a grant to develop research in New Zealand.