News Release

Susanna Brian awarded university's first Fulbright

Contact: Christina Chapple


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Roldan Valverde and Susanna Brian

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FIRST FULBRIGHT RECIPIENT – Southeastern Louisiana University graduate student Susanna Brian, the university’s first Fulbright scholar, and biology professor Roldan Valverde look over a poster detailing some of their prior research on olive ridley sea turtles. Brian has been awarded a grant to study the endangered species at Ostional Beach in Costa Rica.

     HAMMOND – Southeastern Louisiana University biology graduate student Susanna Wingard Brian has become the university’s first student to receive a prestigious Fulbright Grant for Study and Research Abroad.

     Brian will spend the 2009-2010 academic year in Costa Rica where she will conduct research on the endangered olive ridley sea turtle.

     Brian was chosen for a Fulbright Grant after a national competition involving more than 7,000 applicants. The Fulbright Student Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, supports students for up to a year of research, coursework or teaching practicum in more than 155 countries around the world and offers funded opportunities for yearlong research and study abroad.

     “Southeastern is extremely proud of our first Fulbright scholar. Ms. Brian successfully competed with the finest students in the country to earn this honor,” said President John L. Crain. “Her success is a testament to her own hard work and to the quality of the instruction and faculty mentoring she receives at Southeastern.”

     "The fact that Susanna received this award is proof positive of the high quality research that is being performed at Southeastern," said Dan McCarthy, dean of the College of Science and Technology. "We are a regional university with national recognition. It is because of the high quality of our faculty and programs that we are able to recruit students as outstanding as Susanna."

     Originally from Baltimore, Md., Brian now resides in Hammond. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Delaware, where she studied wildlife conservation, Spanish and biology. She came to Southeastern in 2008 after being recruited by Southeastern biology professor Roldan Valverde, who collaborates with scientists in his native Costa Rica -- as well as in countries such as Mexico and India -- to investigate the nesting ecology of olive ridley sea turtles.

     For the next academic year, Brian will live and conduct research at Ostional Beach in Costa Rica, one of three major beaches worldwide where olive ridley sea turtles nest in mass numbers, an event called an “arribadas.”

     She will study the turtle’s hatching success, hatchling sex ratios, and critical incubation temperatures.

     Brian said it is estimated that less than one in 1,000 olive ridley sea turtles reach adulthood, while thousands of adults annually die from interactions with fishing vessels or from poaching.

     “To accurately predict the future health and reproductive potential of the population, it is critical to determine the sex and sex ratios of hatchlings -- the next generation of adults,” Brian said.

     She said her research will include investigating the possible effects of climate change on the olive ridley population, whose sex is determined by egg incubation temperature rather than by chromosomes.

     She explained that Ostional is unique among arribadas sites in that local residents are allowed to harvest and sell a small portion of the eggs laid during the beginning of the season – eggs that would otherwise be destroyed when later arriving females dig their nests.

     “In exchange for harvesting some of the eggs, the community assists with a variety of sea turtle conservation efforts,” said Brian. Her research, she added, will benefit the community by generating vital information for managers and locals who are economically dependent on the sea turtles.

     In her host country, Brian’s research will be affiliated with the Universidad de Costa Rica and the Costa Rican Ministry of the Environment, Energy, and Telecommunications (MINAET) as well as Valverde and his colleagues in Costa Rica, Mexico and India.

     “We anticipate that the results of our study will provide critical information about future breeding demographics of the olive ridleys at the Ostional Refuge,” she said. “This information will enable refuge managers to assess the impact of global warming on the beach in future years, and possibly manage for its effects by manipulating incubation temperature should the need arise.”

     “It will be so good to highlight the work there because it is so unique,” said Valverde. “What we are doing there is not happening anywhere else in the world – it is a great opportunity for everybody.”

     “The Fulbright opportunity is so amazing,” he said. “The fellowship will cover all of Susanna’s expenses, plus provide a stipend.” Valverde, who leads Southeastern study abroad groups to Costa Rica each summer, said he and Southeastern students will visit Brian in August.

     “I would love to see more of our students apply” for Fulbright awards and study abroad programs, Valverde said. “Opportunities such as this open the minds of students to international interactions, which opens so many doors, so many potential job opportunities.”

     During her year at Ostional, Brian also plans to become involved with the community by helping with English classes for local tourist guides and interested villagers and participating in community activities such as the egg harvest.

     Brian is no stranger to living abroad and is looking forward to sharing the Costa Rican culture with her husband Jeremy and eight-month-old son Jack. She has visited France, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, India and Costa Rica, where, as an undergraduate, she studied abroad and assisted with a research project on the ecological and socio-economic aspects of reforestation efforts. She also volunteered and later worked for the Leuser International Foundation as an elephant survey coordinator and assisted with humanitarian disaster relief in Medan and North Sumatra, Indonesia.

     After obtaining her master’s degree, Brian said she hopes to pursue a career in conservation biology. 

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