By Tiffany Whitfield

Jem Baldisimo, a Ph.D. candidate in Old Dominion University’s ecological sciences program, is one of 12 students who received the Ecological Society of America’s 2024 Katherine S. McCarter Graduate Student Policy Award (GSPA). Baldisimo is the second student from ODU to receive the award, which recognizes students engaged in advocacy with an interest in science policy. She and the other awardees will travel to Washington, D.C., to advance their scientific careers in policy, communication and career training.

Originally from the Philippines, Baldisimo knows the importance of marine sustainability and preserving it for generations.

“The Philippines is the center of marine shore fish biodiversity in the world,” she said. “Our word for marine resources is yamang-dagat, which translates to ‘riches of the sea.’ So my Filipino heritage really inspired me to protect what we have, because if we don’t protect our own resources, who else will?”

Baldisimo received her Bachelor of Science in environmental science from Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. After graduating, she took part in a national assessment of the country’s coral reef environments.

“If you could imagine, there are 7,641 islands in the Philippines and we were only able to go a small percentage of that, but in that opportunity, I was able to travel about the Philippines in the most remote areas with military escorts,” she said. “I took it upon myself to find a lot of opportunities to not only help my country, but others who rely on the ocean for livelihood and for food security.”

Her research focus is on the extinction risk of fishes in the marine aquarium trade, and it has taken her to several continents. As a master’s student at the University of Melbourne in Australia, she visited China to research the Yangtze River and help the local government devise ways to promote water conservation.

Through her travels, Baldisimo met ODU Biological Sciences Professor & Eminent Scholar Kent Carpenter at a conference in Hawaii. It turned out that Carpenter was doing research in the Philippines through a Fulbright Fellowship, and this connection inspired her to apply for ODU’s doctoral program in ecological science.

“I wanted to study at an institution that had a lot of research that was not only in the field of marine science, but also in my home country in the Philippines,” she said. “Luckily, I was able to get a scholarship to go to ODU and to work with Dr. Carpenter through the Fulbright.”

Baldisimo’s research at ODU focuses on the extinction risk of fishes in the marine ornamental trade, also known as the marine aquarium trade (MAT), and it was influenced by the fishermen she met while surveying coral reefs in the Philippines. The long-term sustainability of the MAT has been questionable because of the high volume of fishes traded between countries like the Philippines and the United States. The direct impact of the MAT on fish populations is even less studied. Baldisimo will investigate how MAT fish populations in the Philippines have been affected by more than a hundred years of human impacts and determine a list of species to be prioritized for research and conservation. She hopes that her research can generate information useful for researchers, resource managers and policymakers investigating and working on the sustainability of the MAT.

Carpenter said Baldisimo has also been a key collaborator in a National Science Foundation-funded Philippines Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) Project.

“Her past experience has allowed her to contribute to our fieldwork in the Philippines, which involves scuba diving, fish identifications, market and landing surveys and liaising with local communities and fisherfolk,” he said. “She has supported the PIRE Project’s six-week Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program in the Philippines by being a mentor and resource in getting to know Filipino culture and Visayan language.”

In addition, Baldisimo is heavily involved in advocating for the success and quality of life for international students, promoting women in STEM and improving diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2020, she received the Monarch Citizen of the Year award and in 2022 she was named the Ellen Neufeldt Graduate Student Leader of the Year at ODU’s Student Engagement and Enrollment Services Leadership Awards.

In a press release, the Ecological Society of America’s president Shahid Naeem congratulated this year’s GSPA recipients.

“The caliber of this year's awardees, as has been true for awardees in our program since its inception, reflects a promising future for ecological research and policy advocacy,” he said. “These exceptional students exemplify the Society's commitment to nurturing innovative minds dedicated to addressing our most pressing scientific and environmental challenges."  

For Baldisimo, ODU has helped her develop academically, professionally and personally.

“I’m really thankful for the opportunities that were extended to me, not only because I’m a woman of science, but just as a student in the College of Sciences,” she said. “Choosing ODU was one of the best decisions that I’ve made because it was a pleasant surprise that there was a community here that could really support me every step of the way.”