Three Florida State University graduate students have been awarded fellowships from the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
Natali Ramirez-Bullon and Alexandra Hooks, two doctoral students in the Department of Biological Science, earned the American Fellowship. Sohaila Isaqzai, a doctoral student in the College of Education’s International and Multicultural Education graduate program, was awarded the International Fellowship. All three earned the awards for their academic work and innovative community projects that empower women and girls.
Founded in 1881, the AAUW is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that empowers women and girls through research, education and advocacy. With more than 170,000 members across the United States and 800 college and university members, the AAUW’s fellowships and grants have helped scholars and activists overcome barriers to education and advancement and examine the fundamental issues of the day.
The fellowship provides its recipients with salary support so they don’t have to teach and can finish their dissertation within a year.
Originally from South Carolina, Hooks came to FSU in 2016 to pursue a doctoral degree in marine evolution. She studies the evolution of mating systems in marine invertebrates and why females mate with multiple males.
Specifically, she researches the Florida crown conch, a marine snail and voracious oyster predator whose mating system has negatively impacted oyster reefs in Florida. She’s spent her summers at the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory, studying the snails’ breeding designs and measuring their offspring.
“If I didn’t have the marine lab, I wouldn’t have nearly as much access to my field site or be able to run experiments a few meters away from my actual sample site,” Hooks said. “I also do paternity analysis using genetics, so having the resources on campus where I can walk downstairs and submit my samples has played a large part in my ability to do intensive research.”
The oyster reefs weren’t always overpopulated with snails, but years of drought have increased the salinity of the water, creating an environment where these predatory snails can thrive. Understanding why they’re so reproductively successful can provide answers to stop them from dominating oyster reefs.
“It’s a classic question and a lot of research has been done in a lot of lab settings, but we’re still unsure really why it evolved in the marine environment, which has different stresses,” Hooks said.
A dedicated scientist, Hooks prioritizes her service and outreach as much as her research.
“I’m very passionate about research, but I find my joy in mentorship and outreach,” Hooks said. “I’m a part of many different mentorship and outreach programs, and I think being able to show that I am actively involved in the community and in mentoring undergraduates, especially women and minorities, helped me get this award.”
Originally from Lima, Peru, Ramirez-Bullon became a U.S. citizen in 2013 before beginning her doctoral studies at FSU in 2017. She studies ecology and evolution and is developing a quantitative framework to set conservation priorities for plant species. Her research focuses on population ecology, which has the ability to predict population growth and the spread of disease, and is developing methods to predict the effects of human disturbance on plant evolutionary diversity.
The Florida Panhandle is one of nine biodiversity hotspots in the continental United States, many of which reside in longleaf pine grasslands. This is where Ramirez-Bullon conducted field experiments in related pairs of common and rare plant species, testing the hypothesis that rare taxa experience stronger density regulation and identifying plant traits associated with strong density regulation.
“This could provide a tool to identify other rare taxa that are at low risk of extinction,” Ramirez-Bullon said. “Distinguishing species that require immediate conservation actions from species that are rare but demographically stable could lead to better allocation of conservation resources.”
Ramirez-Bullon plans to use her research to negotiate better efforts to conserve biodiversity and improve communication between lawmakers and ecologists. But first, she needs to finish her dissertation.
“This scholarship is important for me because I normally will be a TA and that takes many hours of my time, but now I can just focus on my ongoing research and two other publications I’m trying to finish, so I’m very grateful for this opportunity,” Ramirez-Bullon said.
After her graduation in December 2021, Ramirez-Bullon said she’ll miss her department, colleagues, and performances by the College of Music.
“I need intellectual conversation and I have definitely found that in the Biology department,” Ramirez-Bullon said. “I also love the fact that I could go and see piano concerts and the opera, which I never did before coming to FSU. I’ve made very good friends and I’m going to miss the community.”
Originally from Afghanistan, Isaqzai earned a Fulbright scholarship to start her master’s degree in International and Multicultural Education (IME) at FSU in 2013. She decided to pursue her doctorate within the same department, and her research focuses on advancing women and girls’ education in her home country. She looks at how local communities can promote girls education, focusing on Shuras, which are school management councils in Afghanistan.
“Every school has a Shura, and they include teachers, school administrators and then parents, influential people, religious clergy and community volunteers,” Isaqzai said. “But reports show that even though every public school in Afghanistan has a Shura, the majority of them are inactive.”
Certain sociocultural factors and traditional beliefs undermine girls’ education in Afghanistan, but previous research has shown that active Shuras can help address this problem. Her study focuses on a school in Afghanistan with a very active Shura, and looks at what it takes to make a Shura active, what an active Shura does, how they help to improve girls education and the challenges they face in the process.
“This Shura knew the community around their school and the problems at their school, so instead of approaching problems at the micro level, they approached it at a macro level,” Isaqzai said.
As a woman from Afghanistan, this research is personal to Isaqzai, and so is earning a fellowship from the AAUW.
“There’s so many organizations that support students, but there aren’t many organizations who inclusively support women because almost everywhere, women are disadvantaged competitively, and it’s kind of heartwarming to see that an organization is specifically here to support women,” Isaqzai said. “I really appreciate that and I hope in the future I will be able to contribute to this organization.”