Sylvia Dee wins fellowship to launch Gulf of Mexico study

National Academies back ‘bold’ research projects by early-career scientists

Sylvia Dee

Sylvia Dee, an assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice University, has won one of eight national early-career fellowships to pursue research that relates to the changing ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico.

Dee was selected for the environmental protection and stewardship track of the 2021 Early-Career Research Fellowship (ECRF), announced by the Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Sylvia Dee
Sylvia Dee

The Gulf is home to a wide variety of ecosystems including estuaries, oyster reefs, beaches and dunes, mangroves and offshore shoals and banks. Dee and her students focus their study on coral reefs, which are critically threatened in the Gulf. These fragile ecosystems continue to shift with climate change, urbanization and increased demand for food, water and energy. Predicting and anticipating these changes is essential to allocating natural resources in an equitable way while protecting the environment, according to the GHP.

The fellows will investigate specific issues related to Gulf ecosystems and produce research that helps enhance environmental protection and stewardship.

“This fellowship will be critical for supporting research in coral reef risk forecasting and mitigation,” Dee said. “Since moving to Texas, I’ve increasingly focused on local issues, and our coral reefs are critical to the ecosystem services we rely on in Houston. The grant will help us build capacity to predict, map and work with our collaborators at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to protect the unique coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.”

The ECRF award is not attached to a specific project, which allows fellows to take on bold research they might not otherwise be able to pursue. All of the fellows are investigators, faculty members, clinician scientists or scientific team leads at colleges, universities and research institutions. Each of them will receive a $76,000 award, mentoring support and a built-in community of current and past cohorts.

“The opportunity to collaborate and interact with other early-career fellows is really exciting,” Dee said. “Our meetings provide us time to branch off into teams to identify research solutions by reaching across disciplines to work on a common problem. The mentoring component spans everything from work-life balance to networking. And in that way, the program really is designed to help us not only launch critical research, but also develop and grow as scientists and scholars.”

“Research that enhances environmental protection and stewardship requires both multidisciplinary thinking and the ability to build strong relationships with decision-makers,” said Karena Mary Mothershed, senior program manager for the GRP’s Board on Gulf Education and Engagement. “These exceptional fellows embody those qualities through their perseverance, creativity and inventiveness. One of the most unique aspects of the ECRF is that it supports people, not projects — and we’re excited to be a part of our fellows’ continued success and professional growth.”

The National Academies’ Gulf Research Program is an independent, science-based program founded in 2013 as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Its goal is to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice and capacity, generating long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation.