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NMSU student wins Fulbright award to study parrot species in Uruguay

New Mexico State University biology graduate student Grace Smith Vidaurre will spend nine months in 2017 studying native populations of a parrot species in Uruguay as a result of being awarded the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Award. Uruguay awards only two research Fulbright grants each year.


Close-up of woman looking at an orchid outdoors
New Mexico State University biology graduate student Grace Smith Vidaurre is seen here helping pollinate a small batch of wild orchids in Chile in 2009, where she worked as an intern for the National Botanic Garden of Viña del Mar. Smith Vidaurre was awarded a 2016-2017 Fulbright Scholar grant to study native populations of a parrot species in Uruguay. (Courtesy photo)
Profile of woman in a lab coat
New Mexico State University biology graduate student Grace Smith Vidaurre will study native populations of a parrot species in Uruguay as a result of being awarded the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Award. Uruguay awards only two research Fulbright grants each year. (Courtesy photo)
Close-up of a small green bird in someone’s hand
New Mexico State University biology graduate student Grace Smith Vidaurre will study native populations of a parrot species in Uruguay as a result of being awarded the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Award. In 2013, she worked as a field assistant for Marcelo Araya-Salas and Tim Wright at La Selva Biological Research Station in Costa Rica where she helped collect data relating to patterns of vocal and visual learning in long-billed hermit hummingbirds. In this photo, Smith Vidaurre is holding a manakin she extracted from a mist-net. (Courtesy photo)

Established in 1946, the Fulbright Scholar Program is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Smith Vidaurre will represent the United States as a cultural ambassador while in Uruguay.

“When I realized I was awarded the Fulbright, I was in disbelief, but I was also extremely excited,” Smith Vidaurre said. “This is a project that represents the crux of what I’ve been working toward for years. The award will help me establish field sites of my own and collect the samples I’d like to collect.”

The parrots she is researching are also known as monk parakeets, which Smith Vidaurre said have been exported to many countries all over the world for the global pet trade.

“For my project, I’m specifically looking at genetic changes and behavioral changes that are perhaps making the parrots more successful invaders,” she said. “I’ll also be looking for signatures of the fact that they’re adapting to these new environments that they’ve been able to invade.”

Tim Wright, associate professor of animal behavior and evolution in the NMSU Department of Biology, is Smith Vidaurre’s adviser.

“Grace is a stellar student who has conceived a cutting-edge project aimed at understanding the evolutionary changes that occur when animal populations invade new habitats like urban environments,” Wright said. “Her Fulbright award is the culmination of several years of hard work collecting pilot data and building the international collaborations that will make her period in Uruguay a success. Furthermore, Grace has extensive experience abroad that will make her an effective ambassador for New Mexico State University and the United States.”

Part of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs within the United States Department of State, the Fulbright Scholar Program awards approximately 1,600 grants to students in the U.S. annually. The program operates in over 155 countries.

Smith Vidaurre’s genomic research is supported in part from a pilot award from the National Center for Genome Resources as part of a larger Institutional Development Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, as well as by private donations from Michael and Susan Achey.

NMSU undergraduate and graduate students interested in pursuing a Fulbright Fellowship may contact Honors College Associate Dean Tim Ketelaar at ketelaar@nmsu.edu.