Elon junior honored with Goldwater Scholarship

Mariana Kneppers '18 is a biology and environmental and ecological science major originally from Walnut Creek, California, who is focusing her Lumen Prize research on coastal wetlands.

Mariana Kneppers, a junior biology and environmental and ecological science major and Lumen Scholar, has been named a 2017 recipient of the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

Mariana Kneppers ’18, a 2017 Goldwater Scholar

The scholarship is awarded by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, which was established by Congress in 1986 to honor the late senator. It’s a highly competitive award that is designed to advance the academic pursuits of sophomores and juniors in colleges and universities who are pursuing research careers in natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

Kneppers, originally from Walnut Creek, California, would like to pursue a doctorate in marine ecology at the Duke University Marine Lab within the university’s Nicholas School of the Environment. She is in Turks and Caicos this semester participating in the Marine Resources Management Studies program of The School for Field Studies.

At Elon, she has developed an interest in marine ecology, marine mammal biology and ecosystem-based management while participating in a Winter Term course in Belize in 2016 and her current work in the Caribbean archipelago of Turks and Caicos. In her home state of California, she spent two years volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center in the San Francisco Bay area town of Sausalito.

“I’ve always known I wanted to work with nature and the environment, but I never knew specifically what environment I wanted to focus on,” Kneppers said. “Working at the Marine Mammal Center gave me the hands-on experience I needed with marine life to push me in that direction. It also gave me the confidence to pursue my career goals, especially because I was able to help out in all aspects of the program, from rehab to release to the occasional medical necropsy. Plus, it’s hard not to gain some confidence in your abilities after wrestling with a baby elephant seal for tube-feeding at lunch time.”

Kneppers was selected as one of 240 Goldwater Scholars this year from a field of nearly 1,300 students nominated by their campuses. Each scholar receives a scholarship of up to $7,500 to cover the cost of tuition, fees, and other costs while they pursue their undergraduate degrees.

Kneppers is advised and mentored by Mike Kingston and Brant Touchette, both professors of biology and environmental studies at Elon. A recipient of Elon’s Lumen Prize, Kneppers is also an Elon College Fellow and a member of the national honor societies Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi and Omicron Delta Kappa.

“Mariana is not afraid to work on challenging research projects and, indeed, often approaches them with great enthusiasm,” said Brant Touchette, who is Kneppers’ Lumen Prize mentor.

Kneppers is using chlorophyll fluorescence as an indicator of physiological stress in coastal plants, with an eye on how climate change and increasing sea levels are impacting coastal marshes. “These are important, but ecologically complex, coastal ecosystems and the techniques are often challenging to interpret,” Touchette said. “Nevertheless, Mariana remains passionate about her research and enjoys the prospects of finding new scientific discoveries.”

Kneppers, who is also a member of the Elon a capella group Twisted Measure, said the award will allow her to dive more deeply into her research as she heads toward Commencement in 2018. “I also think that I’ll grow more holistically as well,” she said. “The whole experience has been very humbling and it’s been great to hear how many people are interested in my research as a result. I’m really excited to use this opportunity to spread awareness about the importance of coastal wetlands.”

Kneppers is the third Elon student to be awarded a Goldwater Scholarship, and follows Geoffrey Lynn ’07 and Kelsey Van Dalfsen ’12.

The foundation notes that recent scholars have gone on to land other prestigious awards such as Rhodes Scholarships, Marshall Awards, Churchill Scholarships, Hertz Fellowships and other awards. Kneppers said that receiving the award has pushed her to pursue other fellowships, such as a Fulbright or National Science Foundation fellowship, and offered her confidence as she looks ahead to graduate school.

“It means I can achieve more than I thought I could,” Kneppers said about being named a Goldwater Scholar. “It’s a huge reminder for me to never stop pushing higher for things I might think are beyond my reach.”