College of Science and Mathematics

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Cal Poly Biological Sciences Student Wins NSF Research Fellowship

May 27, 2014

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SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly biological sciences graduate student Paul Carvalho was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowship. The grant will fund three years of his master's and doctoral programs, allowing him to continue researching fisheries, work that he started as an undergraduate at Cal Poly.

The fellowship supports outstanding graduate students pursuing research-based degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This is the second consecutive year that a Cal Poly biological sciences student has been awarded the fellowship.

"This is the most coveted award for a graduate student in the sciences," said Professor Crow White, Carvalho's research advisor. "It opens the door to getting into the most competitive doctoral programs."

"Before I got the grant, I wasn't 100 percent sure that I was going to do my Ph.D.," Carvalho said. "The NSF fellowship really opens doors because I can connect with people who are interested in fisheries modeling. It will also allow me to focus on research without having to worry about outside funding sources."

Carvalho was not a shoo-in for the award. He entered Cal Poly to get a bachelor’s in computer engineering, and it took three years before he found his passion in marine science. He knew his less-than-perfect GPA could be a hindrance to graduate school admissions, so he searched out research projects that might make his application stronger.

"I put everything on the line and went all out. Getting involved, looking for research opportunities, and showing professors that I'm willing to put the time in helped me in the fellowship application process," Carvalho said.

Carvalho first volunteered on a local fisheries project run by Dean Wendt, Cal Poly's dean of research. That turned into his first research job and led to further work with Biological Sciences Professor Sean Lema, which propelled him toward a master’s degree. He is doing his graduate work with White, whose computer modeling work allows Carvalho to combine his computer engineering skills with his fisheries research experience.

"The biology professors are extremely helpful. They really care and mentor students and help them succeed. They inspired me to keep going and pursue research," Carvalho said.

Carvalho and White traveled to Fiji in summer 2014 to study small-scale fisheries. The Melanesian fisheries use a management technique of periodical fish harvesting based around cultural events such as marriages or deaths. Based on the data they collected, Carvalho is now creating ecological models to predict how fish populations will respond to this management technique. "This research is exciting because it's important not to overexploit our natural resources. Fishing is also extremely economically important — it employs millions of people around the world," Carvalho said.

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