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Sloan Foundation Selects USF Biologist as 2017 Research Fellow

New York (Feb. 21, 2017) – The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced Tuesday that University of South Florida Assistant Professor Brad Gemmell, who studies the vast and complex underwater world of tiny ocean organisms, has been selected as a 2017 Research Fellow, one of the nation’s most prestigious awards for young scientists.

Gemmell is one of 126 outstanding American and Canadian researchers named as 2017 Sloan Research Fellows, and just the fourth USF scientist to receive the honor. The fellowships, awarded yearly since 1955, honor early-career scholars whose achievements mark them as the next generation of scientific leaders. Winners receive a $60,000 fellowship to be used as they wish to further their research.

Brad Gemmel, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, is the most recent of four USF scientists who have been named Sloan Foundation Fellows. 

“The Sloan Research Fellows are the rising stars of the academic community,” says Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Through their achievements and ambition, these young scholars are transforming their fields and opening up entirely new research horizons. We are proud to support them at this crucial stage of their careers.”

Gemmell, who joined USF in 2015 as an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, studies the basic science of how the tiniest marine organisms such as zooplankton and young fish, and also how the world’s changing seas might impact their fragile ecosystem. His research projects – which span from Norway to Central America, and from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico – seek to explain how these organisms use the dynamics of their environment to grow, feed and thrive.

“It’s an extreme honor to be recognized by the Sloan Foundation for the work that I am doing and for colleagues to see the potential in my research to make a large scale difference,” Gemmell said.

Video screen capture of a lamprey illuminated by laser light used to help study marine animal movement through water.

Gemmell describes his research as the intersection of biology and physics, exploring the interactions between tiny animal organisms and their watery environment, and how large-scale ecosystem processes and evolutionary relationships explain the survival of the smallest animals at the base of the ocean’s food chain.

“When we think of life in the ocean, we think of the big stuff you can see,” Gemmell explained. “But the vast majority of life in the ocean is extremely small. The majority of fish species start off life as these tiny larvae floating around in the water column. A lot of what I do is understanding organisms and how they interact in their fluid environment. Living in the water has a lot of challenges, but also a lot of advantages.”

Gemmell’s projects have explored such topics as predator-prey interactions in the environment and how warming ocean waters impact the way small creatures move through the water – as well as how those dynamics might change with climate flux. He also explores the design principles of sea organisms and why they are more efficient in moving through water than man-made machines.

In addition to dozens of academic publications and numerous lectures and conference talks, his work has been featured in The New York Times, Wired magazine and on the Discovery Channel. A recent Inside Science TV segment on his research can be viewed here.

Gemmel specializes in using high-speed imaging techniques to answer ecologically relevant questions about animal interactions with fluid, predators, feeding, mating, migration, swimming and turbulence. 

“Early-career recognition can make a significant difference in the life of a scientist,” says Daniel L. Goroff, vice president at the Sloan Foundation and director of the Sloan Research Fellowship program. “The rigorous selection process and the prominence of past awardees make the Sloan Research Fellowships one of the most prestigious awards available to young researchers.”

Three other USF scientists have received the honor: Mya Breitbart of the College of Marine Science in 2007 and in 2013, Cameron Ainsworth of the College of Marine Science and Jiangfeng Zhouof the Department of Physics.

Past Sloan Research Fellows include many towering scientific figures, including 43 Nobel Prize recipients, 16 winners of the Fields Medal in mathematics, 69 recipients of the National Medal of Science and 16 winners of the John Bates Clark Medal in economics.

A full list of the 2017 Fellows is available at the Sloan Foundation website at

Gemmel, a scuba diver, has collected an impressive array of underwater life photos, like this jellyfish swimming in the ocean. Photo by Brad Gemmel.

Vickie Chachere, USF Research and Innovation, contributed to this story.
Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications