Science & Research

Thirty University students, alums chosen for grants

National Science Foundation Fellowships support graduate research in scientific fields

By
Science and Research Editor
Sunday, April 15, 2018

After proposing projects on topics ranging from particle physics to the mechanisms of chewing in animals, 30 University students and alums have been selected as winners of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship. The 2,000 overall winners were selected from a pool of more than 12,000 applicants, according to a press release from the NSF.

This year marks the third consecutive year that at least 30 University affiliates have won the fellowship. “I think it’s becoming increasingly evident that Brown is a place where outstanding training and programming (exist) at both the graduate and undergraduate levels,” wrote Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Campbell in an email to The Herald.

Among this year’s winners was Jenna Wurster GS, a doctoral candidate in the pathobiology program. Wurster proposed a research project focusing on how both vegan and non-vegan foods impact the kimchi microbiome, the microorganisms in one’s body. She was inspired by a similar study that she co-authored on the impacts of kimchi. That study, led by Michelle Zabat ’18 on an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award, was recently published in the Food Microbiology journal. Eventually, Wurster hopes that the research will be used to produce food with a better shelf life.

As part of their application, candidates were required to submit a personal statement. Several of the University’s awardees discussed the importance of mentorship in their work and giving back to the greater community. Wurster highlighted the importance of communicating science outside of the scientific field. Researchers have to “avoid the trap of locking ourselves in the lab and not talking to anyone,” she said.

J.J. Lomax GS, a student in the ecology and evolutionary biology department, also focused on the role of giving back to others. While an undergraduate at the University of South Florida, Lomax was inspired by a professor to take up research. Now as a graduate student, Lomax mentors high school students at the Paul Cuffee School in Providence, hoping to motivate students while they study the sciences.

Lomax proposed a project focusing on chewing for non-mammalian animals. Typically, research on chewing focuses on mammals because they are most similar to humans, Lomax said. But he hopes to broaden the horizons of the field by expanding his research to other types of animals. Most people “don’t understand how much work goes into taking a bite out of an apple,” Lomax said. He will study the muscles, teeth forms and neural control involved in chewing with the fellowship money.

Researchers were awarded a $34,000 stipend for three years, as well as tuition support for up to $12,000 per year.

Evan Coleman ’18, one of this year’s winners, said that the money will enable him to focus on his research as a graduate student in physics at Stanford University in the fall, rather than devote his attention to typical graduate student tasks such as working as a teaching assistant or residential advisor. He hopes to eventually implement his fellowship project, which works to develop new machine learning techniques for detecting signals from the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator at CERN in Switzerland.

Justin Dong GS, a doctoral candidate in the applied mathematics department, said that the fellowship will give him “the freedom to choose (his) own path,” unimpaired by financial and work commitments. Dong plans to start his project on the compression of large data sets this summer.

The University’s success with the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is the latest example of Brown’s track record with awards that “represent hallmarks of distinction and excellence,” Campbell wrote. Students have received a high number of honors such as the Fulbright award and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study in recent years, he added.