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UNCW Graduate Student Allie Best Receives Prestigious Fellowship to Pursue Coastal Bird Habitat Research

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

When Allie Best came to UNCW to pursue a master’s degree, she had a deep appreciation for wildlife biology, but she never expected to fall in love with the study of birds, much less become the recipient of a prestigious fellowship to fund her research.  

Best is one of two 2022 recipients of the North Carolina Space Grant and North Carolina Sea Grant, a joint graduate research fellowship awarded to students who propose important research that addresses pressing problems along the North Carolina coast. The research must combine technology and data used by NASA and NOAA with knowledge of coastal science.  

The second grant recipient is Nicholas Corak '11, a UNCW alumnus and current doctoral student at Wake Forest University. Corak was a North Carolina Teaching Fellow and member of the Honors College while at UNCW. A double major in physics and mathematics, Corak credits UNCW for giving him the necessary foundation for his pursuits in interdisciplinary education and research. His award will support his study on how prescribed fires affect vegetation regrowth in coastal North Carolina ecosystems such as longleaf pine savannas and marshlands.  

Corak and Best will each receive $10,000 to fund their research, and both will use NASA’s arsenal of satellite imagery to gain valuable insights.  

“I was really honored for the committee to place that trust in the research I’m doing and to value the importance of it,” said Best. “I’m so excited to get started.” 

Best will study the habitat quality and availability of the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow, a tiny, palm-sized bird that lives among the tall grasses of the brackish marshes along the Atlantic coast. This species’ habitat is gradually decreasing due to sea level rise, and Best’s research will help ensure that the swamp sparrows can continue to thrive.

“In the grand scheme of things, their survival is at stake,” said Best. “They use the high marsh habitat and as that habitat shrinks, they might not be able to adapt. It’s important to look at areas these birds may use in the future, so I will be analyzing data and building models using satellite imagery to make habitat management and conservation recommendations.”  

Best’s passion to study coastal birds was sparked in the Danner Research and Teaching Lab at UNCW under the guidance of Dr. Raymond Danner, assistant professor of biology and marine biology.  

“I owe a lot to Dr. Danner for explaining this grant to me. He gave me the confidence to apply for it,” said Best. “He has been an amazing advisor and guided me through the process.” 

Danner describes Allie as “sharp and focused,” drawing comparisons to her success as a NCAA Division I student-athlete. Best was a basketball standout during her undergraduate years at Marist College in New York, and continued her playing career in 2021-22 at UNCW, where she became team captain, led the team in three-point shooting and earned the Soaring Seahawk Award for being an exemplary representative of UNCW Athletics – all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. 

This summer, Best joined some of her Danner Lab peers on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore for 14 weeks of field work to study the Least Tern, a small seabird with a signature yellow bill that migrates annually to the Outer Banks. Part of a large, five-year research cooperative agreement with the National Park Service, the Hatteras research is being funded by a $588,000 grant given solely to UNCW and Dr. Danner to study the species’ reproductive habits in relation to beach use by humans and other factors like predators.  

“The first time I handled the birds, it was nerve-wracking, because they are so delicate,” said Best. “We take measurements while they are in our hands and band them so they can be located when they leave the Outer Banks. It’s so special to have close interaction with something you usually only see from afar.” 

When the fall semester begins in August, Best’s attention will return to the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow, which spends its winters in coastal North Carolina around the Mattamuskeet and Swan Quarter areas of Hyde County. Dr. Danner spent three years studying this species, and Best will be building on his research.  

“I think Allie will make important new discoveries about the habitat needs of the Swamp Sparrow and other marsh birds, which will help conservationists make plans to manage these species,” Danner said. “This fellowship will propel Allie on her excellent trajectory in science.”    

Best’s research will also benefit other students through formal and informal collaborations. She will mentor an undergraduate student at UNCW and develop an outreach program for middle and high school students to teach the importance of marsh conservation using computer modeling software. She also plans to extend the educational outreach to local Wilmington programs like UNCW MarineQuest, Young Science Academy and Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, Inc. 

“Outreach like this is a big reason why I am studying wildlife biology,” Best added. “It’s important to mentor individuals in areas they find interesting to foster their love of wildlife and to encourage them to try new things. I was so excited when I was younger when I could learn from others, and I'm really happy I will be able to do that now.” 

-- Krissy Vick

Allie Best stands behind a camera, smiling
Allie Best

Nick Corak
Nick Corak '11