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Student receives Udall Scholarship

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 10 - October 29, 1998

Witnessing the fragmentation of tropical forest in Costa Rica intensified Stacey Smith's desire to study genetic diversity of plants in disturbed areas, and her desire to help protect the environment earned for her a 1998 Morris K. Udall Scholarship.
Smith, who spent the summer studying Costa Rica's varied plant and insect population as a result of having won the Daughtrey Scholarship the year before, believes that "solid scientific research is instrumental in creating environmental policy." She wants to "provide leadership in conservation in the tropics by conducting research on the influences of human disturbance on plant genetic diversity. She has studied ways to reduce phosphate pollution in aquatic systems due to livestock waste by genetically engineering soybeans. Recently, she began studying genetic variation and dispersal of caddisfly populations because of her interest in the way human activities affect gene flow and disrupt natural populations.
She would like to put her research experience to work doing research on the effects of human activities on natural populations, investigating the impacts of de-forestation and fragmentation of tropical forest on the genetic structure of plant species. "Studies of genetic diversity can reveal the health of a species well before the population shows visible signs of decline," she said. Identifying those in decline is important in aiming conservation efforts to protect them, she said.
In Costa Rica, she conducted a survey of land along the streams in rural Sarapiqui and aided another researcher in looking for leaf-cutter ant mounds. She also talked to local farmers. Seeing a hillside whose tree population had been decimated to create more pasture made her start thinking "about how widespread destruction of nature threatens the genetic diversity of these plant species." The experience raised questions Smith thinks need to be answered and made her want to "use scientific research to enhance conservation efforts in the tropics," she said. "It also cemented my commitment to changing environmental policy to protect endangered tropical-plant species and their ecosystems," she said.
The Udall Scholarship goes to sophomores and juniors throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The Morris K. Udall Scholarship and Excellence in National Environmental Policy Foundation chooses the scholars, nominated by faculty members, on the basis of academic merit. The one-year scholarship will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to $5,000.
"Udall recognized the importance of preserving intact ecosystems to protect its {Alaska's} species and acknowledged the role of scientists in conservation," Smith said. "The tropics present a similar situation; pristine, intact ecosystems still exist, but could be lost if policy makers and the populace do not fully comprehend the necessity of protecting these unique areas and their inhabitants." It is her goal to use scientific research to influence policy in the direction of protecting valuable habitats.
"Preservation of these precious tracts of rainforest will depend on local and international efforts supported by scientific research," she said.