Ocean of Possibilities Await Newest Fulbright Grant Winners

Swimmer, scholar Virginia Gilliland ’22

Swimmer, scholar Virginia Gilliland ’22 to research climate change along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Virginia Gilliland plans to spend a lot of next year under water.

Her path often leads there; from her early years as a competitive swimmer to Davidson College’s women’s swim team to the countless hours she’s spent in oceans and labs, researching aquatic life.

Now Gilliland ’22 has received a prestigious research award to study climate change’s impact on the fishing communities along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

She’s one of six new Davidson alumni named as finalists for the 2022-2023 Fulbright U.S. Student Program. They’ve been offered grants ranging from research to English Teaching Assistantships in four different countries. One Davidson alumnus was named an alternate.

Fulbright is the largest U.S. exchange program, and each year awards about 2,000 grants to U.S. students for research, academic studies and teaching in more than 140 countries. Davidson, a liberal arts college of about 1,900 students, has long been recognized as a Fulbright student program powerhouse, earning the designation as a Top Producing Institution nine times.

Last year, Davidson ranked third in the country and highest in the southeast among bachelor’s degree-granting institutions. This year’s final grantee statistics will be released in early 2023. 

Gilliland heads to Australia in January to work with Professor Jane Williamson at Macquarie University in Sydney. She’ll use drones, remote underwater vehicles and other cutting-edge technology to study the fish present on both commercially and recreationally fished reefs. She’ll don a GoPro camera as she scuba dives, using the pictures to create 3D reef models for her research.

“I’m most interested in understanding how climate change is impacting marine habitats,” she said, “and how various species, such as fish, are responding to those stressors.”

She’ll study the relationship between reef erosion and fish diversity amid pressures of both large- and small-scale fishing. She says her work with renowned researchers, “will help me address climate change intentionally.”

In June, she spent two weeks on an offshore research mission with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Riding on the federal vessel the Nancy Foster, she joined a research crew surveying artificial reefs off the North and South Carolina coasts. She’s got a history with NOAA; in 2020, she received the agency’s Hollings Scholarship

Gilliland is now working for Cornell University, conducting research on the coast of New York’s Long Island. It’s part of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Marine program.  She’s helped raise oysters and mussels, studied whelk (a mollusk) behavior, monitored and tagged horseshoe crabs and examined how sequestering carbon dioxide affects marine life.  

While’s she’s no longer swimming competitively, she’s scuba diving extensively as she trains for her rescue diver certification. The competitive streak lives: she’s now wading into the triathlon world, supplementing the pool with biking, running and open-water swims.

Her love for water and the life it sustains motivates her research.

“Climate change will continue impacting many people’s livelihoods,” she said. “I’m passionate about understanding how we can best conserve our natural resources.”

Davidson’s 2022-2023 Fulbright Finalists and Alternates

  • Carson Crochet ’22, English Teaching Assistant Grant, Germany
  • Virginia Gilliland ’22, Research Grant, Australia
  • Alex Loeb ’22, English Teaching Assistant Grant, Spain
  • Jamie Montagne ’22, English Teaching Assistant Grant, Taiwan
  • Matthew Schnizer ’22, English Teaching Assistant Grant, Germany
  • Worth Talley ’22, English Teaching Assistant Grant, Spain (declined)
  • Dominic Flocco ’22, Budapest Semesters in Mathematics-Rényi Institute Award Alternate, Hungary

For more information about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program application process at Davidson, contact Gaylena Merritt (gamerritt@davidson.edu) with Davidson’s Fellowships & Scholarships Program.