Two COS researchers earn graduate fellowship from U.S. National Science Foundation | College of Science
May 24, 2024

Two COS researchers earn graduate fellowship from U.S. National Science Foundation

Four researchers from the University of North Texas have earned one of the most competitive research awards in the U.S. for graduate students. Among this year's fellows are UNT biology student Kristina Fite and alumna and COS lab manager Marie Muñiz ('23).

The U.S. National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship funds full tuition for the recipient's research-based graduate degree, includes an annual $37,000 stipend for three years and provides access to networking and professional development from the NSF.

"Earning this fellowship is a tremendous accomplishment," says Pamela Padilla, UNT's vice president of research and innovation. "I am proud to celebrate these UNT staff and students as they work to further research within their fields and help shape the future STEM workforce."

Kristina Fite

Master's student Kristina Fite Studies aquatic ecotoxicology and amphibian conservation. She is investigating the potential harmful effects of the chemical 6PPD that's often used as a stabilizing additive in rubbers, with its most prevalent application being what gives car tires their durability. She's also looking at the byproduct of that chemical when it reacts with the ozone, 6PPD(Q).

"These chemicals have recently been shown to harm Coho salmon, so we want to determine what other aquatic species they might impact," says Fite, who is performing her research under the guidance of Dr. Jason Bohenek, clinical assistant professor of biological sciences.

Dr. Bohenek, who specializes in aquatic community ecology and is affiliated with UNT's Advanced Environmental Research Institute, says Fite first impressed him during her undergraduate study at The Ohio State University, where he was working as a postdoctoral researcher at the time.

"Her undergraduate research project looked at the effects of light pollution on mosquito oviposition and was truly outstanding," Dr. Bohenek says. "Working alongside Kristina has been a privilege, and I look forward to seeing her continue to excel in the future."

With the NSF fellowship, Fite will continue pursuing her master's degree in biology at UNT and carry out her full-scale research project to understand more about 6PPD and 6PPD(Q) and their impact on the environment. The work will especially focus on the chemicals' effect on developing amphibian larvae.

"Without this funding, I would have been very limited with my research. Now, I can contribute in a more meaningful way to the data that's out there on these chemicals and possibly inform regulation and its use in the future," Fite says.

Fite's ultimate goal is to work with an endangered animal population and support repopulation of a species.

"I feel like by understanding how we think and interact with the environment, I can help create conservation or sustainability," Fite says.

Marie Muñiz

Marie Muñiz dove into research during her first semester as an undergraduate ecology major, taking the introductory course in the UNT Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (PHAGES) program taught by microbiology associate professor Dr. Lee Hughes. Then, after noticing an uptick in dead birds on campus, she found inspiration for her next project -- a study monitoring bird-window collisions on the UNT Denton campus. The research eventually led to her helping found the UNT Bird Campus Committee, a student-led committee funded by UNT's We Mean Green Fund, whose goal is to shed light on birds' important role in the ecosystem and provide conservation education.

However, her work in assistant professor and pollinator expert Dr. Elinor Lichtenberg's lab is what has fueled her research interest in bees and career aspirations to become a conservation ecologist.

"Pollinator populations are declining, which is what makes understanding their behavior so important," says Muñiz, who has been working as a manager in Dr. Lichtenberg's lab after earning her bachelor's degree in Spring 2023. "If we can know more about how humans affect them, we can figure out ways we can promote and help our native pollinator populations."

Her undergraduate Honors College thesis explored how bees make foraging decisions using social information from diverse flower visiting insects. Next up, Muñiz plans to build on her research by examining what effect pesticides and rising global temperatures can have on bumble bee behavior at Penn State University, where she will use her NSF fellowship to earn a master's degree in entomology.

"Marie is self-motivated in her growth as a scientist. She has a strong interest in conservation research and has made numerous contributions to her fellow students and community," Dr. Lichtenberg says. "She will be greatly missed at UNT, but I am so excited to see her career journey unfold."

Via UNT News