A Tularosa native is joining an elite group of research fellows, which includes Nobel Prize- winning scientists. Valerie Brewer is double majoring in conservation ecology and biology while minoring in genetics and biotechnology at New Mexico State University. She is among the top young scholars in the nation to earn a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the country’s oldest fellowship that directly supports graduate students in various STEM fields.
The program will fund Brewer’s research for three years while she pursues a Ph.D. The fellowship has an annual stipend of $34,000 per year for three years and an additional $12,000 per year for university tuition and fees.
“Now that it seems a bit more real, I am overwhelmingly grateful and humbled that I received this award,” Brewer said. “I am deeply thankful to the biology community at NMSU, specifically, Karen Mabry for mentoring me and advising me throughout, not only this process but also for the almost four years that I have been in her lab.”
Brewer had the opportunity to begin her research early as an undergraduate through various research programs offered in the College of Arts and Sciences. She started research in the Mabry lab in the beginning of her second year at NMSU supported by the department of biology’s Howard Hugh Medical Institute program. HHMI enhances NMSU biology courses by incorporating a research-based component and offering undergraduate research opportunities.
After she finished her time at that program, Brewer was accepted into the Maximizing Access to Research Careers program, which runs through the chemistry and biochemistry departments. NMSU’s MARC program, one of the oldest continuously funded programs in the country, provides support for students who are under represented in the biomedical field to move on to the next level.
This spring, Brewer’s research was further supported through the Discovery Scholars Program. The program is a college-wide celebration of undergraduate scholarship. Since 2014, DSP has offered research opportunities for undergraduates to pair with mentor faculty.
Within Mabry’s lab, Brewer researches the way animals’ behaviors differ between their natural habitat and urban areas.
“Specifically, I am looking at how the frequency of extra-pair copulations, mating with an individual outside the mate pair, compares between song sparrows that live in natural habitats and those that live in urban areas,” Brewer said. “We are examining this in collaboration with the Sewall lab at Virginia Tech.”
Over nearly 50 years, the NSF has funded about 50,000 of these Graduate Research Fellowships for students like Brewer out of more than 500,000 applicants.
“The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards that a student at Valerie's career stage can receive,” said Mabry, an associate professor of biology. “But not only is it a recognition of her talent and potential, it also comes with three years of funding that she can take with her to any graduate program in the country. It's a remarkable opportunity.”
Brewer has spent the past two summers in Blacksburg, Va. collecting blood samples and data on social behavior from the song sparrow population, in collaboration with Virginia Tech associate professor Kendra Sewall and graduate student Sam Lane. She brought the blood samples back to NMSU to genotype the sparrows, then analyze the data in the lab.
This fall, Brewer will be heading to her first-choice graduate program in integrative biology at Oregon State University to continue her research. She also received a one-year recruiting fellowship from OSU, which will cover the cost of the first year of her Ph.D.
“I will be joining the Cornelius lab at Oregon State to pursue my Ph.D.,” Brewer said. “I aspire to a research career that will benefit the conservation of species impacted by anthropogenic activity and inform the conscientious planning of urban areas.”
Through programs like Discovery Scholars, MARC and HHMI, NMSU students gain not only highly technical research experience, but also practical experience in working on a project with a team, writing in their field, presenting their results at conferences, and day-to-day project management. Last fall, Brewer was honored for her presentation at the 2019 National Diversity in STEM Conference by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.
As Brewer prepares for the next step in her academic journey, she is thankful for the knowledge and skills she has gained during her time at NMSU, especially being part of the Mabry lab.
“Karen is the reason I have gotten this far,” Brewer said. “I admire her a great deal and I am incredibly thankful for her time and the patience and care she gives to members of her lab. The NMSU biology department has amazing faculty who are generous with their time and truly care.”