Promising UA Grad Students Earn NSF Fellowships

Monday, July 25, 2016
Graduate student Ekta Patel is among the group of 24 UA students and recent graduates to receive a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award. Fellows at the UA receive coverage for tuition, fees and student health insurance, and also a $500 travel grant.

A group of 24 students affiliated with the University of Arizona received the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which is granted to those with proven potential for making significant achievements in their fields.

The award is the most prestigious research fellowship for graduate students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, providing an award valued at $132,000 per student. The fellowship, which also was granted to four UA students this year in the social sciences, provides three years of support for research-based graduate students in the early stages of their career.

"The Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a vital part of our efforts to foster and promote excellence in U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics by recognizing talent broadly from across the nation," the NSF said in a statement announcing the awards.

"These are incredibly competitive awards that go to the most promising graduate students in the nation," said Andrew Carnie, dean of the Graduate College.

"We are honored, but not surprised, that these students have been selected among the many outstanding graduate students at the UA," Carnie said. "We look forward to the discoveries and innovations that will come from their work."

UA recipients include Laura Oksana Diakiw, a doctoral student in the UA School of Anthropology, whose research focuses on biological anthropology. 

Diakiw has completed fieldwork and research with multiple non-human primate species, and she will use her fellowship to study the gut microbiome, diet and behavior of olive baboons in East Africa. She also will continue to establish a field site in Akagera National Park, Rwanda.

Other recipients include:

  • Genevieve Comeau, a student in the UA's Entomology and Insect Science Graduate Interdisciplinary Program.
  • Benjamin Cromey, a first-year doctoral student in optical sciences and engineering, who researches multiphoton microscopy. This technology, useful in cancer research, creates images of tissue without relying on traditional fluorescent contrast stains, allowing high-contrast images of living tissue to be created.
  • Michael John Kerins, a graduate student in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, whose research is situated at the intersection of technology, consumers, business and regulation. Kerins studies toxicological mechanisms, quantitative biology and metabolism.
  • Adam King, a graduate student in the UA Department of Linguistics, who is planning on conducting fieldwork on K'iche', a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala. King wants to work with native speakers to build a corpus of recorded spoken K'iche' with attention paid to the various dialects of the language.
  • Christina Laree Newhall, a first-year master's student in the UA Department of Linguistics, who is studying Native American languages and linguistics. Newhall, an enrolled member of the Native Village of Unga in Alaska, will continue her work documenting language and ethnographic information in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands of Alaska in support of revitalization efforts of Unangam Tunuu (Aleut language).
  • Ekta Patel, a second-year graduate student in the UA Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, who researches massive satellite galaxies in cosmological simulations. Patel uses cosmological simulations to statistically quantify the properties of massive satellite galaxies and their host galaxies throughout cosmic time.
  • Carolyn Raithel, a doctoral student in the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, whose research centers on high-energy theory, general relativity and compact objects.
  • Sarah Sutton, a doctoral student in planetary sciences at the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Sutton leads Digital Terrain Model production for the Mars Orbital High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, operated by the UA. Her research interests include planetary geomorphology and surface processes on Mars such as current dune activity, possible briny water flows, polar processes and volcanism.
  • Ashley Lawrence, a graduate student in clinical psychology, specializing in clinical neuropsychology. In the Department of Psychology, Lawrence focuses on health risk factors for cognitive decline and neurodegeneration in aging, especially inflammation-related risk.

A number of May graduates also received fellowships, including Tyler Toth, who graduated from the UA Department of Biomedical Engineering. The fellowship will fund Toth's graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.

Alexandra Downs, who earned a biosystems engineering degree, will pursue her research interests in sensors, entomology and bioenergy in a doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She plans to continue high-impact research relating to biological microelectromechanical systems with sensing applications for insect systems and human health.

Travis Sawyer, a graduate of the UA College of Optical Sciences, will pursue a one-year Master of Philosophy degree at the University of Cambridge, where he will conduct research in biomedical imaging techniques. After his return from Cambridge, he expects his graduate research to focus on optical techniques for non-invasive medical screening and diagnosis.

Jean Wilkening, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering, will pursue a doctorate in environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Wilkening's research seeks to better understand differences in photosynthetic capacity between different species in areas that suffer from very limited data availability.

Also, Brianna Elise Herndon, who graduated from the UA School of Anthropology in May, will pursue a doctorate in the same discipline through studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Herndon's research involves the evolutionary history of the knee joint, mostly focusing on the capacity for developmental plasticity in this joint. Herndon expects her research will contribute to an understanding of the evolutionary history of the knee joint and potentially enable a reduction of the occurrence of ACL injuries through intervention programs during critical growth windows.

"I am beyond excited to have received this fellowship," she said. "I am loath to use the word 'lucky' because I know how much time and effort I put into my application. But many days I can't help but wake up and think about how lucky I am."