2020-21 Mathias Grant recipients

2020-21 Mathias Grant recipients
UC Santa Barbara graduate student Samantha Sambado received a 2020-21 Mathias Graduate Student Grant for her study of pathogens carried by ticks. She plans to collect ticks at nine NRS reserves across California. Sambado’s interest in ecology was sparked when she took the NRS’s California Ecology and Conservation course as an undergraduate. “I have a special place in my heart for the NRS,” Sambado says. Image: courtesy Samantha Sambado

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.

2020-21 Mathias Grant recipients
To collect ticks, Sambado drags a cloth behind her as she hikes a given distance across the landscape. Any ticks the cloth picks up are easy to spot against the white cloth. Image: Samantha Sambado

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.

2020-21 Mathias Grant recipients
Juvenile or young ticks can be no larger than a pinprick. Sambado plans to analyze connections between microbial pathogens, environmental conditions, and tick life stages as part of her research. Image: Samantha Sambado

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.

2020-21 Mathias Grant recipients
One of this year’s Mathias Grant recipients will use genomics to study the diets of garter snakes, such as this one from Angelo Coast Range Reserve. Image: Lobsang Wangdu

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.

2020-21 Mathias Grant recipients
Motte Rimrock Reserve will be the site of a Mathias Grant-funded project to examine how native ants are coping with two plant species that have recently invaded the reserve. Image: Lobsang Wangdu

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.

2020-21 Mathias Grant recipients
This year’s Mathias Grants will help fund an investigation into the eco-evolutionary dynamics of the rocky intertidal area of Bodega Marine Reserve. Image: Lobsang Wangdu

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.

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