College of Arts & Sciences

UNCW Graduate Student Receives NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

APRIL 29, 2022

Jax Salguero has been recognized by the National Science Foundation with the Graduate Research Fellowship as she pursues her doctorate in Marine Biology at UNCW. Salguero's award of $34,000 per year for three years will support her research on parasites along with their marine mammal hosts. The prestigious award for her and $12,000 for UNCW realizes $138,000 in total support.

Salguero has always been inquisitive about nature and the biology of the world around her. Her intense curiosity taught her to ask questions and provided the inspiration to seek out answers. Coming from a background where opportunities were limited, that same curiosity gave her the ambition to pursue an education and career in the field of biology.

While earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, Salguero learned that a disease ecology lab was starting at UNCW by Dr. Julia Buck, whose research explores the population, community and ecosystem-level consequences of parasites in coastal systems. In 2019 Salguero met Dr. Buck for a tour of UNCW’s main campus, the Center for Marine Science, and the oyster flats and a discussion about parasite roles in the local coastal ecosystem, along with project ideas. Salguero knew she wanted Dr. Buck as her advisor for this rare opportunity to study parasites and their marine mammal hosts.

“Dr. Buck asked the types of host-parasite interaction questions I hoped to study,” said Salguero. “Her understanding of parasite and marine disease ecology would be valuable in conceptualizing the environmental, anthropogenic and ecological drivers and implications of disease in marine populations.”

Dr. Buck was planning to accept Salguero into UNCW’s graduate program for Fall 2020.

“She wanted to gain experience working with marine mammals first,” said Buck. “She took a year-long internship with The Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research and joined my lab as a graduate student in Fall 2021. She is currently transferring into our Ph.D. program.”  

During the internship, Salguero broadened her knowledge of marine mammal distribution, ecology and behavior, which all influence disease dynamics. 

Salguero was also attracted to the collective knowledge within the Department of Biology and Marine Biology that makes it possible to study host parasite interactions and eco-evolutionary immunology of sensitive megafauna populations—topics not well understood due to the difficulty of conducting research using non-invasive methods.  

When asked about an interesting aspect of her projects, Salguero said, “My data is collected from stranded individuals. I get to take an unfortunate event such as a stranding and use it as an opportunity to learn, and potentially apply this insight into mitigating disease outbreaks and mass stranding events in the future. Even more so, the Marine Mammal Stranding Program is incredibly collaborative, and I get to collect samples for other projects—I get feces and parasites, Dr. Lorian Schweikert gets an eye sample, Dr. Michael Tift gets cerebral spinal fluid—so much of the animal gets upcycled into an educational opportunity.”

“CMS and MMSP offer unique opportunities to collect disease and parasite data during stranding and necropsy events,” she continued. “I started here at UNCW this past Fall 2021, and I am honored to be a member of this program, the Disease Ecology Lab and member of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship enables me to expand the possibilities and future direction of my project.”

The process for applying for the NSF GRFP was no small feat. Discussions began between Salguero and Dr. Buck in 2019 with multiple iterations that culminated into her submission and subsequent award.

“When I was starting my Ph.D., I was awarded the same fellowship,” said Buck. “It changed the course of my Ph.D. for the better. I’m thrilled that my graduate student will benefit from my experience with this program, and I can’t wait to see what Jax does with her fellowship!”

Both Ph.D. candidate and advisor are ecstatic and honored to be the recipient of this award and spend more years researching together.


- Mary Ellen Frizzell