02/26/2012 06:00 EST | Updated 04/27/2012 05:12 EDT

50K U.S. fellowship helps UVic biologist dive into her academic fieldwork

VANCOUVER - When it comes to studying sharks and reefs, Christmas Island Atoll is as remote as it gets, especially for a University of Victoria professor who grew up next to a dairy farm in Guelph, Ont.

The atoll -- not to be confused with the Australian territory of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean -- is the largest in the Pacific, and is part of the Republic of Kiribati, located close to the equator, northeast of Fiji.

Thanks to a $50,000 fellowship, though, university biologist Julia Baum and her team of researchers will find it a little easier to bridge the gap from Vancouver Island.

Baum was named one of 126 recipients of the internationally renown, 2012 Sloan Research Fellowships, announced Feb. 15 by the New York City-based non-profit, philanthropic institution, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

"It's just going to be such a huge help to funding my research program over the next two years," she said. "We're working really far away, pretty much in the most remote corner of the ocean."

For three to six weeks each year for the next two years, Baum plans to study how the loss of large predators, like sharks, alters reefs and ultimately changes or affects society.

But conducting the field work isn't easy or inexpensive.

The cost of the flight is about $1,800 per person and food and lodging expenses are also pricey thanks to the remote location, she said.

Once on the ground, the team will spend considerable time on and in the water, diving, counting fish, taking photos and video of the reefs, and looking for evidence of coral bleaching and disease.

Baum said this year, she and her team plan to catch a shark, non lethally, of course, and take tissue samples. She said the team also plans to take samples from other fish, as well.

Back at home, the fellowship will also help fund computer work and statistical analysis, she said.

"The reason that we chose it out of all of the islands in the Pacific is because it doesn't have very many human impact, so there are lots of big predators still, which is exciting for me because I focus on sharks," said Baum.

Robert Lipson, dean of science at UVic, said the fellowship is prestigious and buzz is beginning to develop on campus.

He said the majority of fellowship winners come from the U.S. and 20 past recipients have also earned acknowledgment from the Nobel committee.

In fact, in a media release, the foundation called the recipients, "tomorrow's Nobel Prize winners."

"These outstanding men and women are responsible for some of the most exciting science being done today," said Paul L. Joskow, foundation president.

"To have an award like this come up to Canada is a really big deal," added Lipson.

Contributing to the significance is the fact that Baum is a new hire who is already making her presence known internationally, said Lipson.

Surprisingly, Baum said she did not become interested in sharks and reefs until she was in university.

After completing a bachelor of science degree at Montreal's McGill University in 1999, she enrolled in Halifax's Dalhousie University, where she earned her master of science and PhD, studying how long-line fisheries targeting swordfish and tuna were affecting Atlantic shark populations.

Baum then completed post-doctoral work in California.

"It is tough work," she said of the field work, noting temperatures can be "unrelentingly hot" on the Pacific atoll.

"On the one hand I'm phenomenally lucky. I get to do, you know, something that I love and something that I believe is important, and something that I hope is going to help improve the state of the world.