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Research Program Prepares Scholars for Careers in Ecosystem Ecology

Alumna and Vector Ecologist Takes on Pesky Projects Like Mosquitos
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As a scholar in the Southern California Ecosystems Research Program, Kimberly Nelson immersed herself in research — from examining the effects of excess water on fire ants to studying the Argentine ant in habitats at Starr Ranch Audubon Sanctuary in Orange County.

Nowadays, the Cal State Fullerton alumna and vector ecologist studies black flies and their link to a parasite that causes eye worms in dogs, resulting in blindness. She also assists in the control efforts of invasive Aedes mosquitoes, which cause Zika, as well as flea-borne typhus, also known as rickettsiosis, and its impact on the San Gabriel Valley.

“Key benefits of being a student in the research program included developing new research skills and learning how to use scientific equipment to test different organisms in plants, aquatic snails and ants,” said Nelson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biological science in 2009 and a master’s degree in biology in 2013.

The program, known as SCERP, started on campus in 2002 with funding from the National Science Foundation. The program offers undergraduate biological science students opportunities to perform independent research and prepare for graduate school. Scholars are paired with biological science faculty mentors, present their work at scientific conferences and develop a plan to reach their academic and career goals.

NSF grant funding ended in 2017, and since, the program is supported by philanthropic donations. In the fall at its alumni reunion, SCERP launched a fundraising campaign for the program, which prepares scholars like Nelson for careers in ecology and environmental biology. The Black Family Foundation has pledged a $10,000 matching donation. To date, about $8,000 has been raised, said William “Bill” Hoese, professor of biological science and director of the program. The Beim Foundation also supports the program with two grants of $15,000 in 2017 and $30,000 in 2018.

“It’s vital we keep the program going. SCERP uses an intensive research training model in ecology to support diverse students and prepare them for careers in science,” Hoese said. “The program promotes retention in science, with over 90 percent of our graduates ‘doing science’ as part of their work lives.”

Nelson began her career in vector control in 2011 as a field intern at the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District, where she researched the efficiency of pesticide treatments on the invasive red imported fire ant. In 2014, she landed her current position at San Gabriel Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District. 
A vector is any organism that transmits a disease or parasite from one organism to another, Nelson explained. Through her work, she enjoys conducting research to learn about emerging diseases in California in efforts to protect people from those diseases.

“What fascinated me most about this field is being able to help protect people from diseases transmitted by vectors, while educating them about ways they can enjoy and connect with nature,” she said.

“Sometimes treatment is as simple as educating residents to get rid of water sources to protect themselves and their families from mosquitos and related diseases.”

Nelson relayed that her CSUF education prepared her for the workforce through a range of opportunities, such as how to write scientific journal papers to access to internship and work experiences. To date, she has more than two-dozen publications and has made numerous research presentations at professional conferences.

“SCERP aided in my scientific development by giving me the chance to work with faculty research mentors Dr. Hoese, Dr. Paul Stapp and Dr. Sean Walker,” she shared. “These professors helped me extensively on my research projects and to develop poster and oral presentations. Through SCERP, the possibilities to learn are limitless.”