Parrots and manatees, oh my! Two environmental science and public policy students receive Fulbright research awards

Sarah Farinelli (right) will soon leave for Nigeria to study the African Manatee and Jessica Roberts (left) will travel to Brazil to study two species of parrots that have been rescued from the illegal trade of exotic wildlife. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

Jessica Roberts and Sarah Farinelli, PhD students in environmental science and public policy, are friends, roommates and now, Fulbright fellows.​

They met via Mason’s Environmental Science and Policy Department and encouraged each other to apply for the prestigious fellowship. Roberts’s research is on the reintroduction science of two species of parrots in Brazil, focusing specifically on the release of birds who have been rescued from the illegal trade of exotic wildlife. Farinelli will go to Nigeria to work alongside the Biodiversity Preservation Center and study the geographical patterns of the African manatee and conservation implications, using drones to assess habitat use of these animals.​

Both research projects stem from the need to fill a gap in academic research. Farinelli said it was hard to conduct research on the African manatee as an undergraduate because of how little information is available, and Roberts said there is plenty of work to be done on reintroduction science. ​

David Luther, an associate professor in the Department of Biology and PhD advisor to both students, said Farinelli and Roberts are self-starters and natural leaders. He added that both focus their research on the bigger picture, something he said researchers can sometimes lose sight of. ​

“They are not just interested in the science behind it but also the bigger picture involving locals in the community and engaging the community,” said Luther. ​

Through her adventures in volunteering and working in conservation with AmeriCorps in the Sierra Nevada, the Wildlife Center of Virginia and Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, Roberts realized there is much rehabilitation work being done for animals, but little is known about the animals after they are reintroduced into the wild and whether these rehabilitation methods are helping. Better survey of these animals pre- and postrelease can help inform rehabilitation methods. ​

“Once we get our act together with habitat protection,” said Roberts, who will work with the Brazilian nonprofit Instituto Espaço Silvestre, “how are we going to be prepared to release these animals into the wild?”  ​

Farinelli, who completed a BS in biology from George Mason before starting the PhD program, will also survey animals in the wild in order to better inform conservation efforts. She is working on surveying techniques using drones, both aerial and underwater, to track the African manatee’s movements, which will help set a starting point for conservation by knowing what areas to focus on and how to best do so. ​

"The hunting pressure, we suspect, is the most intense in Nigeria out of the 21 range countries of the African manatee,” said Farinelli, who added that one of her research questions involved identifying the drivers of manatee presence in villages where they are hunted.​

Farinelli will leave for Nigeria at the end of the summer, and Roberts heads to Brazil early next year.