Preface: We were delighted to connect with Jaida Elcock recently to learn more about the the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program and also Minorities in Shark Sciences, a nonprofit organization that Jaida co-founded.
Could you briefly summarize your research career?
My research career has been filled with amazing mentors and fantastic opportunities. It began when I was a senior undergrad at Northern Arizona University (NAU) when I was helping Dr. Alice Gibb review videos for a study on fish burial. Following this, I spent summer of 2019 at Friday Harbor Labs (FHL) at the University of Washington (UW) researching the textures on the surface of skate egg cases. I then became a lab technician at Howard University in Dr. Stacy Farina’s fish biomechanics and physiology lab where I was able to help CT scan fish, set up 3D printers, and aid students with their projects. I returned to FHL in summer of 2020 to continue my research on skate egg cases. Finally, I began my graduate school journey at UW in Fall of 2020 before transferring to the MIT-WHOI Joint Program where I am focusing on shark movement and behavioral ecology. I am unbelievably grateful for the experiences I have had throughout my research career so far, as well as the skills I have learned during each of the opportunities! I am excited to continue growing my research toolkit as I continue through my PhD.
What is one discovery or realization you’ve come across in your work that you would like the world to know?
This may not be the most profound realization, but while doing work with skate egg cases, I was able to look at the surface of egg cases of many different species under a scanning electron microscope. In doing so, it made me take a bit of a step back and just appreciate how truly amazing it is that evolution can cause such similar and closely related organisms to have drastically different ways to exist and survive. Even though the overall shape of these egg cases were similar between species, the textures on the surface of them are very different and it was really fun to investigate why that is and simply appreciate the beauty of nature and evolution.
What was the application process like in advance of receiving the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship funding?
The process was daunting, I won’t lie. It is a large application and as someone still early in their graduate school career, I was a bit nervous about applying. I wasn’t sure my research was solid enough or that it would have enough of an impact to be accepted. I see now that my research is important and it feels wonderful to see that other people saw my proposal and were as excited about the prospects of this research as I am! Also, looking back, I appreciate the intensity of the application. It really made me think deeper about what I want my PhD thesis to be and gave me the opportunity to grow more confident in my abilities and my ideas, and I think this confidence is really important to have before beginning your research.
What advice would you give to prospective candidates interested in receiving this funding?/Tips unique to this application? (I feel that I kind of answered both questions here)
Start the application early! You will want several months to work on this, sending it back and forth between you and your advisor to make the necessary edits. This is definitely not a last minute application. It will take time and work to compile all elements of this application, but I believe it is absolutely worth it. Also, make sure you contact the research team of the sanctuary you would like to work with. Discuss your ideas with them, make sure your ideas align with the goals of that sanctuary, really develop a relationship with your sanctuary before the application. That is a very essential portion of the application. Check out the Nancy Foster Scholarship webpage and handbook for more explicit details of what should be included and how heavily each element of the application is weighted in the review process. Finally, keep in mind the community that comes with this funding! Before applying, I don’t think I realized the extent to which you really become a part of the NOAA Sanctuaries family. They take you in, help you develop not just as a scientist, but as a person. I am so grateful for the Nancy Foster Scholarship community and my cohort members. They will be a lifeline I can reach out to throughout my graduate journey, and beyond that as well.
What advice would you offer to applicants who were previously unsuccessful?
This is an incredibly competitive scholarship, so do not feel discouraged if you didn’t receive funding. This provides you with an opportunity to continue improving your research proposal to apply again the following year, or for another funding source! Don’t give up, your research matters!
How has this scholarship funding impacted your career?
Receiving this funding has allowed me to focus on my classes and research, rather than teaching or continuing to look for additional funding. But more importantly, it has opened many doors in terms of career. I now have an incredible network of colleagues and friends that work at NOAA and/or with prestigious institutions around the country. I know that as I continue to build a clearer idea of what I want my career after graduate school to look like, I can lean on these people and use this network to pave my path towards a career I am passionate about.
Tell us about your involvement with Minorities in Shark Sciences
Minorities in Shark Sciences, also known as MISS, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting women and gender minorities of color in the field of shark science. We recognize that many people, especially minority groups, may face both social and financial barriers to getting into shark science and we aim to break down these barriers. We offer a number of different hands-on opportunities at no monetary cost to our participants and we have created a community and a safe space for people who have historically been excluded from this field. I am one of the four co-founders of MISS and right now I help with social media posts and events. These events can include cultural events, professional development events, social events, and more! I feel incredibly grateful to be a part of such a beautiful community and I am so excited to see how MISS expands and helps more people in years to come.
I understand MISS has a travel award and member of the year award?
The MISS member of the year award is not application based, but nomination based. This is an opportunity for people within the MISS community (members and Friends of MISS) to nominate a member that they believe has demonstrated exceptional service to the MISS mission of promoting diversity in shark science.
Our travel award is application based and it provides funding for a MISS member to travel to a scientific conference. The best advice I can give to our members applying for this award is to just be honest about their financial needs so that we can appropriately provide funds to students who need the assistance.
Thank you, Jaida, for sharing your research story and these insights regarding the funding from the Nancy Foster Scholarship and the Minorities in Shark Sciences awards program.