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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

“Rising star” Sara Maxwell Named ODU’s First Sloan Research Fellow

By Tom Robinson

While teaching at Old Dominion University, marine ecologist Sara Maxwell also is doing cutting-edge work to protect migratory animals and fisheries through dynamic ocean management.

And monitoring tagged turtles off the African nation of Gabon to inform port expansion and seismic testing technology.

And developing ways to help energy officials keep seabirds safe from wind turbines placed in the mid-Atlantic off the Virginia Beach coast.

Maxwell's busy research initiatives impressed the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

An assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Maxwell is one of 126 researchers from the United States and Canada to be named 2016 Sloan Research Fellows.

Since 1955, Sloan fellowships have been awarded to early career scientists identified as "rising stars, the next generation of scientific leaders," according to the Sloan Foundation.

Sloan Fellows receive $55,000 each to further their research, as well as the thrill of seeing their names listed amid the prestigious past fellows on the foundation's website.

"It's a really big honor, a little bit daunting, really," said Maxwell, who came to Old Dominion in 2014 from Stanford. "What a phenomenal group of people who have won this in the past."

Maxwell is the first scientist from Old Dominion to be named a Sloan Fellow. She said she plans to put her $55,000 prize toward research for herself or her students, especially pilot projects whose aim might fall outside a typical grant proposal.

A large part of Maxwell's already funded research promotes ocean sustainability through the dynamic management techniques she pioneered at Stanford during her post-doctoral work.

Maxwell tracks marine animals through ocean movements and climate-change-related effects to better understand their behavior. The analytics help fisheries construct dynamic, rather than static, marine protections that reduce bycatch, the unintentional catching of fish or other marine animals.

Working with the Gabon government, a West African wildlife conservation group and England's University of Exeter, Maxwell also has produced widely published research involving olive ridley sea turtles. That work is helping Gabon meet its goal of designating more than 20 percent of its waters as marine protected areas.

Next, Maxwell plans a March trip to the Florida Keys to collaborate on first-of-its-kind research tracking the brown noddy tern. The brown noddy is a small bird too petite to tag until the recent development of GPS tags weighing less than two grams.

"And the great thing is the tags are reusable," Maxwell said, "so we can take them off and tape them back on other birds."

Alfred P. Sloan was the former president, chairman and CEO of General Motors who, according to the foundation, witnessed first-hand how science transformed the automobile industry.

"He started the Sloan Research Fellowships to make sure the most brilliant young stars in academia continue pursuing research that can transform their fields and eventually improve the quality of our lives," said Daniel L. Goroff, vice president at the Sloan Foundation and director of the research fellowship program.

Previous Sloan Research Fellows include acclaimed physicists Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, as well as game theorist John Nash.

Since the first awards in 1955, 43 Sloan fellows have received a Nobel Prize, 68 have received the National Medal of Science, and 16 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics.