UWM PhD Graduate Student Receives Prestigious Sea Grant Fellowship

Becky Curtis has always been interested in the environment and how societies interact with and impact nature. This fall she will wrap up her doctoral work at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences and embark on the next step of her freshwater sciences career: a John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship.

Becky Curtis’ research in the Klaper lab analyzes how nanoparticles are affecting aquatic organisms

Curtis was one of only 74 graduate students in the country selected for the prestigious Sea Grant fellowship, which begins in February 2022. The one-year fellowship matches highly qualified graduate students with host organizations in the legislative and executive branches of government located in the Washington, D.C., area.

“The fellowship will be a chance to learn more about how science and policy intersect,” Curtis says. “Everything we do is based on policy. I’m interested in seeing how policymakers and executive actors intersect and influence each other and how research can influence policy decisions.”

A career in aquatic research wasn’t always the obvious path. The Wisconsin native got her undergraduate degree in biology at Michigan Technological University. She then earned her master’s degree in international environmental sciences, focusing on sustainability, at Lund University in Sweden. When she returned to Wisconsin, she got a job with the City of Milwaukee Department of Public Works, working on recycling and waste reduction.

“When I worked for the city recycling program, I saw how little bits of plastic become litter and enter freshwater systems,” she recalls. “I was interested in how different actions taken in society impact aquatic ecosystem health and how I could work within that area to improve the relationship between humans and our natural resources.”

With that in mind, Curtis decided to pursue a doctorate that would strengthen her research skills.

“The School of Freshwater Sciences was a really great resource, and it was right in my backyard,” she says.

She was particularly intrigued by Dr. Rebecca Klaper’s research into how emerging contaminants impact freshwater organisms. Klaper, who recently became the vice dean of the School, was one of the first scientists to study the environmental effects of nanomaterials and is a senior investigator at the National Science Foundation’s Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology.

As a doctoral candidate working in Klaper’s lab, Curtis analyzes how nanoparticles — very small particles used in everything from lithium batteries to agricultural fertilizers — affect aquatic organisms such as zebrafish, freshwater fly species and tiny aquatic crustaceans. The goal is to determine which nanoparticle characteristics make them toxic in the real world. The information could inform industry on how they could modify products to reduce their negative impact on organisms.

“It was awesome to step into the aquatic research field while keeping that theme of sustainability and fostering a better relationship between society and our natural resources, especially water,” Curtis says.

In addition to enhancing her research skills, Curtis has had opportunities to present at research conferences, including an international conference in Vienna, Austria. She also traveled to England to work on a project with Klaper, who was then a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Birmingham.

“Being part of the School of Freshwater Sciences community has been really rewarding. It opened up this world that I had always wanted to peek into and now I’m part of it,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed getting into freshwater research and I’ve also gotten all these other great experiences along the way.”

As a Knauss Fellow, Curtis hopes to learn how to translate her research into conservation regulations and management decisions that improve aquatic ecosystem health.

“I want to be able to translate the science into policy. I’ll get to interact with people from different offices and agencies who deal with Great Lakes and marine management and conservation issues,” she says. “This is bringing together everything that I’ve wanted to do.”