Researcher Awarded Presidential Honor for Work on Coastal Marshes and Sea Level Rise

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Matt Kirwan
Submitted Photo – Matt Kirwan, a scientist whose research of coastal marshes and sea-level rise brought him to the Eastern Shore, received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for his work July 25.

By Stefanie Jackson – Matt Kirwan, a scientist who has conducted research on the Eastern Shore and who is an associate professor at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), recently received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). It’s the highest honor the U.S. government can bestow upon independent researchers beginning their careers.

“The Presidential Early Career Award is further proof that Matt is one of the shining stars among our younger faculty,” said VIMS dean and director John Wells in a press release from William & Mary.

“It also helps confirm that his studies of how coastal marshes respond to sea-level rise is of the utmost importance to Virginia and the world,” he said.

Kirwan gained the attention of national news outlets for his study of “ghost forests” – desolated woodlands filled with dead trees that are often little more than bare, gray stumps, killed by saltwater intrusion due to sea level rise.

Kirwan conducts his research in part through VIMS and the Virginia Coast Reserve’s Long-Term Ecological Research project, said Cora Johnston, the site director at the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center in Oyster.

The research team studies Virginia’s barrier islands, tidal marshes, lagoons, mainland watersheds, and how the coastal system responds to climate change, sea level rise, and other long-term environmental changes.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation, which also recently honored Kirwan for his work by granting him the NSF Faculty Early Career Development award.

Since he began working for VIMS in 2013, Kirwan has authored or co-authored 18 articles that have appeared in research journals such as Nature and Science.

He teaches two courses at VIMS, principles of geological oceanography and wetland geomorphology and ecology. He also mentors three undergraduates, two doctoral students, and two post doctoral fellows.

Kirwan is a 2002 graduate of the College of William & Mary with a bachelor’s degree in geology. He received his doctorate degree from Duke University in 2007.

He is one of three William & Mary scholars to have won the PECASE since the award’s inception in 1996.

The Trump administration held a ceremony to honor the 2019 PECASE winners July 25, across the street from the White House at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall.

Kirwan said, “I’m so excited and grateful for this award. It was a completely unexpected honor to be recognized by the White House and in the company of such great scientists.”