Fourth-year ecology major Anai Novoa received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring early last month in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the San Diego-based nonprofit Ocean Discovery Institute.

Novoa accepted the government’s top honor for math and science educators on Dec. 12 after working with the Ocean Discovery Institute to mentor young students in marine biology and environmental stewardship in the economically underprivileged area of City Heights in San Diego. The nonprofit, which aims to address an underrepresentation of lower-income students in these fields, was given the presidential nod — and an accompanying grant of $25,000 from the National Science Foundation — following an increase in science test scores and college attendance in the City Heights region.

Novoa first became involved with the Ocean Discovery Institute as a mentee in the ninth grade and said the organization helps empower urban youth to pursue careers in the sciences. The City Heights native currently works as a mentor and a research assistant with professor Craig Carlson in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology.

According to Carlson, Novoa has been a dedicated asset to the scientific community for more than four and a half years, often combating problems in microbial oceanography.

“She’s been a valuable member of our team in moving this program along and has been an active participant in research at sea,” Carlson said. “In addition to her research participation, she’s been active in the UCSB academic community as a mentor. She’s a prize student — the real deal.”

Novoa, a student in the College of Creative Studies, said she discovered her keen interest in marine ecosystems during a trip to Baja California’s Sea of Cortez, where she studied food webs and the process of energy transfer with University of San Diego professor and Ocean Discovery Institute Science Director Drew Talley.

According to Novoa, the Ocean Discovery Institute’s efforts to expand access to scientific areas of education benefit both the students and the sectors in which they study.

“I have learned the power of mentoring and how important it is in the field of sciences,” Novoa said.

The award ceremony in Washington included presentations by past recipients of the award and workshops sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Though President Obama was not present at the reception, a founding member of the Ocean Discovery Institute met privately with him in his office at the White House.

“Through their commitment to education and innovation, these individuals and organizations are playing a crucial role in the development of our 21st century workforce,” President Obama said in a Nov. 15 press release announcing the award. “Our nation owes them a debt of gratitude for helping ensure that America remains the global leader in science and engineering for years to come.”