School of Ocean Futures student to conduct marine research as NSF fellow


Turtle being measured and photographed.

Sparky the sea turtle being photographed during bycatch research. ASU School of Ocean Futures PhD student Nicole Kaiser is utilizing artificial intelligence and innovative underwater camera technology to investigate how marine species respond to bycatch reduction methods. Photo courtesy Nicole Kaiser

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Nicole Kaiser grew up spending summers at Lake Michigan and developed a deep appreciation for aquatic ecosystems at a young age. Now, as one of the first doctoral students in the newly launched School of Ocean Futures at Arizona State University, Kaiser is pursuing impactful work to protect the integrity of our marine ecosystems. 

Earlier this year, she was accepted into the 2024 cohort of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. This highly competitive opportunity provides three years of study and research funding for graduate students in STEM. Kaiser said her current work is a natural evolution of her childhood passions.

Portrait of Nicole Kaiser.
Nicole Kaiser. Photo by Meghan Finnerty/ASU

“I became inspired by ocean research when I realized how interconnected our marine ecosystems are to life on land, providing valuable resources and processes that our world could not function without,” she said.

Kaiser’s dissertation research seeks to address the challenges of bycatch, the unwanted animals that accidentally get caught in fishing nets alongside the target species. Bycatch is a longstanding challenge for fisheries — it threatens marine ecosystems and harms profits for individuals whose livelihood is reliant on what they catch. Kaiser is utilizing artificial intelligence and innovative underwater camera technology to investigate how marine species respond to bycatch reduction methods.

Kaiser said her acceptance into the fellowship is the start of an exciting new phase for her research, in addition to a confidence boost. When she was notified of her acceptance, Kaiser said she was overjoyed — this fellowship is one of the most sought-after awards for an early-career scientist.

“This fellowship has expanded my horizons and flexibility with my graduate program and research, and I have high aspirations and goals set out for myself,” Kaiser said.

She plans to use this funding to enhance collaboration between fisheries, marine scientists and environmental stakeholders in the United States and abroad. Her hope is to improve broad strategies for ocean management and governance, particularly in relation to engineering novel technologies that benefit marine ecosystems. She sees conservation efforts as intrinsically linked to social solutions, and believes that cross-cultural connections are essential to addressing these challenges. 

“Collaboration is essential in ocean research because marine resource management requires a strong sense of applied ethics,” she said. “Without input from diverse perspectives, sustainable and just mindsets toward ocean conservation cannot be achieved.”

With support from the grant, Kaiser will be able to travel and utilize her multilingual skills to bring diverse stakeholders and policymakers into the conversation about ocean technology innovation. She also aims to publish her work in multiple languages to increase accessibility and bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public. 

Woman in a boat holding a fish.
Nicole Kaiser holding a fish during one of her fieldwork experiences. Courtesy photo

Additionally, Kaiser plans to develop a micro-credential program for undergraduate and graduate students looking to further novel technologies in ocean science.

As an ASU alumna who double majored in biological sciences with an emphasis in ecology and conservation and Spanish literature and culture, returning to the university for her doctoral studies was a logical step.

"I chose ASU because of its emphasis on inclusion over exclusion,” Kaiser said. “I hope to take this mindset that ASU embodies to commit myself to making the world a better place, a more empathic place and a place where the benefits that are received from nature are just and accessible to all backgrounds and cultures. An emphasis on inclusivity is critical when it comes to environmental challenges such as protecting our oceans.”

Kaiser has collaborated with multiple researchers from across ASU and the College of Global Futures. In 2020, she joined Jesse Senko’s research team in La Paz, Mexico, to work with local fisheries to identify and develop innovative technologies for reducing sea turtle bycatch. 

“La Paz ignited my desire to pursue the social dimensions of marine science research and strengthened my curiosity for the mysteries of the ocean frontier,” Kaiser said. “As the Earth continues to become more compromised with the environmental changes we are seeing, the ocean will continue to have more and more everyday relevance not just for those who live near the coast, but for landlocked states and countries.”

Kaiser has also teamed up with Lekelia Jenkins from the School for the Future of Innovation in Society to explore how dance can be incorporated into science communication and conservation learning. Their process involved educating people about sea turtle deaths caused by bycatch, and then encouraging these individuals to explore the themes of conservation through movement.

“I have already found that ocean science offers limitless possibilities for creativity, intellectual exploration and collaboration,” Kaiser said. “Although the issues that plague the oceans seem daunting and discouraging, there is always room to create hope and joy.”

Kaiser stressed the importance of fostering an environment of respect and awareness of the relationship between people and our oceans, regardless of how close they live to the coasts. 

“The future of the oceans is our future, and we can envision and create that future through the creative mind that lives in each and every one of us,” she said.

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