By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
Most people will be staying close to home in 2021 due to the pandemic. UC Santa Barbara graduate student Samantha Sambado will not be among them. Her doctoral research will take her on multiple journeys up and down California, in search of ticks and the human pathogens they carry.
“Ticks are the number one vector of infectious disease here in the United States,” Sambado says. Those diseases include Lyme disease and tick-borne relapsing fever, but also ailments that could be linked to more poorly characterized tick microbes.
Sambado will be visiting nine different UC Natural Reserves to sample ticks living in different conditions and ecosystems. Her research will take her from Santa Cruz Island and Coal Oil Point reserves in the south, up the coast to Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve in Central California, and as far north as McLaughlin Natural Reserve near Napa.
A disease ecologist in training
“I view myself as not just ‘the tick chick,’ but as a disease ecologist,” Sambado says. “I want to know how much disease transmission cycles vary from the coast to inland, and northern to southern regions, which represent a variety of temperatures, humidity levels, and total precipitation—all factors important for tick abundances and pathogen maintenance.”
She plans to sample ticks at each reserve once a month for the four months from March to June, which constitute peak tick season in California. Each swing through the state will add up to roughly 800 miles of driving.
Fortunately for Sambado, her travels across the state will be supported by funds from the UC Natural Reserve System’s 2020-21 Mildred E. Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant Program. “I’ve been applying to grants left and right, and this is the only one to fund the travel portion of my work. California is so large and gas is expensive, so I’m very grateful to the UC Natural Reserve system,” she says.
Critical Mathias Grant support
Sambado was one of sixteen UC graduate students who received up to $3000 in Mathias Grant funding to defray the costs of transportation, equipment, and accommodations for conducting research at one of the NRS’s 41 reserves this year.
All nine of the general UC campuses are represented in this year’s cohort. Recipients plan to do their field work at a total of fifteen different reserves. Sambado is one of six awardees who plan to visit more than one NRS reserve for their proposed research. “I wanted to capture this awesome latitudinal gradient the NRS has to measure tick-borne pathogen responses to environmental variation. Conditions in Point Reyes are very different from those here in the southern Santa Ynez Valley,” Sambado says.
Other projects utilizing multiple reserves include a study analyzing the influence of non-native honey bees on native bee populations at four Southern California reserves, and an examination of garter snake diets at five northern California reserves ranging from Angelo Coast Range Reserve in the north to Sagehen Creek Field Station in the east and Hastings Natural History Reservation to the south.
A large proportion of this year’s Mathias recipients plan to investigate animal ecology. Studies range from how interactions between small carnivores such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes affect behavior in the Santa Monica Mountains, to how hummingbirds and yellowjackets affect bee parasite prevalence, and how native ant species are coping with the incursion of non-native invasive plant species at Motte Rimrock Reserve. Other recipients will examine competitive interactions between grassland annuals at Sedgwick Reserve, and compare the influence of daytime versus nighttime pollination on seed fertilization in native plants at Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center. One proposal to survey the microbes living at Lassen Volcanic National Park marks the first Mathias Grant project to utilize Lassen Field Station.
This year’s lone anthropology project, based at Santa Cruz Island Reserve, will use isotopes to investigate how ocean climate regime shifts such as El Niño affected the diets of Native Americans in the Channel Islands.
The $38,000 awarded this year comes from the Kenneth S. Norris Endowment Fund for the California Environment, provided to the NRS by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Since its establishment in 1988, the Mathias Grant program has awarded a total of $944,444 to 502 students.
Invaluable professional experience
In addition to supporting budding research scientists, the Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant program gives students valuable career experience. Students learn how to apply for and manage a research grant, and report on their progress to a funder. The program benefits the NRS as well, as it spurs students to establish potentially long-term studies on reserves.
Being awarded a Mathias Grant can also help students garner additional funding for their endeavors. Receiving a grant highlights the importance of a researcher’s work, and that it is worthy of support. Recipients say early career funding from a Mathias Grant has been pivotal to their professional success.
Aiding UC graduate research
The Mathias Grant competition is open to UC graduate students who submit a proposal for research to be conducted at one or more NRS reserves. Students from all disciplines are encouraged to apply. Students at an early stage of their careers and in underrepresented fields of study receive preference.
All award recipients are invited to present their findings at the Mildred E. Mathias Graduate Student Research Grant Symposium. The symposium enables students to meet peers, interact with leading field researchers, and discuss career options. Now held every three years, the next symposium is likely to be held in 2022.