Eighteen Graduate Students Honored With National Science Foundation Fellowships

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Students’ research projects cover a variety of disciplines at UC Riverside; an additional 13 graduate students make the honorable mention list this year

By Iqbal Pittalwala on April 9, 2014

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Eighteen graduate students at UC Riverside have received Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation this year.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Eighteen graduate students at the University of California, Riverside have received Graduate Research Fellowships (GRFs) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) this year.  The highly competitive fellowships are awarded to individuals early in their graduate careers based on their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science and engineering.

“The graduate community is extremely proud of the accomplishments of these graduate students who are at the beginning of their research careers,” said Joseph Childers, the dean of the Graduate Division at UC Riverside.  “The fact that they have been awarded these prestigious scholarships in a national competition speaks to the outstanding quality of the students themselves as well as to the dedication of the faculty who train them.”

The NSF awards the GRFs directly to graduate students selected through a national competition. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period ($32,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution) for graduate study that is in a field within NSF’s mission and leads to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree.

The UCR students who won the GRFs this year are:

Osinachi Ajoku (geosciences), Christina Armenta (psychology), Michelle Chebier (environmental engineering), Javier Fajardo (chemistry), Oscar Gonzalez (neurosciences), Eric Robert Lucien Gordon (entomology), Denise Jackson (microbiology), Wei Li (environmental engineering), Julisa Amanda McCoy (sociology), Elizabeth Ann McDevitt (psychology), Nicholas Nobles (computer science and engineering), Brooke Elizabeth Pickett (ecology), Michael Ryan Pina (organismal biology), Edwin Sabas Preciado (material science), Sarah Marie Reinhard (neuroscience), Peter Michael Ruberton (psychology), Kevin Fernando Welzel (entomology) and Jacklyn Whitehead (bioengineering).

“Our department was very pleased to learn that two first-year graduate students in Assistant Professor Emma Aronson’s group — Denise Jackson in Microbiology and Brooke Pickett in Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology — were awarded the NSF fellowships,” said Katherine Borkovich, the chair of the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology. “In the case of Ms. Jackson, this is also the first NSF award to a microbiology student since the program came out of moratorium a few years ago.”

A glimpse at some of the graduate research projects

Ajoku, a second-year master’s degree student, works with Robert Allen, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences.  He is exploring future potential changes to the Earth’s hydrological cycle and tropical belt width — important research impacting many subtropical regions.  He will enter a Ph.D. program in the fall at Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

Armenta works with Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology. She will investigate the capacity of gratitude to bolster efforts towards self-improvement and positive change. Understanding the role of gratitude in one’s self-improvement efforts can inform the development of individual, organizational, and community-based self-improvement programs.

Chebier works with Haizhou Liu,an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering.  In her first year of graduate studies, Chebier studies the potential reoccurrence of chromium in our drinking water treatment and distribution systems.

Fajardo is a fifth-year chemistry and physics double major.  He will start a Ph.D. program in chemistry this fall. Assistant Professor Vincent Lavallo is his faculty mentor.  Fajardo focuses on designing new molecules and transition metal complexes that exhibit novel reactivity and are capable of catalyzing important reactions. Homogeneous transition metal catalysts are key to several important industrial and pharmaceutical reactions.

Gonzales, a second-year student doing research with Maxim Bazhenov, a professor of cell biology and neuroscience, is exploring how pathological synchronization arises in brain networks following traumatic brain injury. He has helped develop a computer model to study which properties of the network lead to hyper-synchronization.

Gordon is in his second year of graduate studies. He works with Christiane Weirauch, an associate professor of entomology, on exploring diversity and function of understudied bacterial symbionts of a group of true bugs including plant bugs and lace bugs. The study will further our understanding of symbioses between insects and bacteria.

McCoy works with Ellen Reese, an associate professor of sociology.  In her second year, McCoy examines the variations in family planning funding in the United States as they relate to conservative opposition and levels of minority and women’s political representation. The research is timely because family planning programs are being defunded across the United States, even though publicly funded family planning significantly benefits low-income women, many of whom are women of color.

McDevitt, also in her second year of graduate studies, works with Sara Mednick, an assistant professor of psychology.  Her research explores how memories are strengthened during sleep. The aim of her current project is to understand how napping can be used to enhance learning.

In his first year of graduate studies, Nobles is being co-advised by Victor Zordan, an associate professor of computer science and engineering, and Tamar Shinar, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering.  Nobles’s research aims at determining an optimal shape and swimming motion for nanoswimmers.  Nanoswimmers have great potential in medical applications, for example, the targeted diagnosis and treatment of maladies.

Pickett, a first-year Ph. D. student, works with Emma Aronson, an assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology.  The growth of invasive grasses can cause abiotic and biotic legacy effects (the total impact of a species that persists long after the species is removed) in the soil.  Pickett’s research will determine if these legacy effects of invasive grasses inhibit the growth of natives in post-invasion soil as compared to native soil — research that can have transformative impacts on the field of restoration ecology.

Pina is a first year graduate student in the Botany and Plant Sciences Department, and works currently with Milt McGiffen, a cooperative extension crops specialist and plant physiologist. His research focuses on elucidating the selective forces shaping the evolution of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that form symbioses with legume plants.  Legume crops provide a major portion of caloric intake for humans and livestock, as well as high levels of oils for emerging biofuels. Pina’s research has beneficial potential for farmers that grow food crops, fodder crops, and could be useful also in the improvement of legume biofuel crops.

Preciado, a second-year materials science and engineering Ph.D. student, works with Ludwig Bartels, a professor of chemistry. He is developing single layer transition metal dichalcogenide films — semiconductor material has the ultimate thinness as well as improved optical properties over silicon — that will be used in the next generation of microchips.  The goal is to incorporate elements into the film to allow for more sensitive tunability that can improve computing and reduce its energy cost.

Reinhard is a second year graduate student studying systems neuroscience with Khaleel Abdulrazak, an assistant professor of psychology.  She focuses on Fragile X Syndrome, a leading known genetic cause of autism and mental retardation.  Research produced on Fragile X can be applied to other developmental disorders and some genetic diseases because many of the pathways and components of the cortical network that are affected in Fragile X syndrome have likewise been implicated in these other disorders.

In his second year, Welzel works with Dong-Hwan Choe, an assistant professor of entomology, on Argentine ants. Spraying of chemical insecticides is the most common control method, but this method leads to non-target effects and ground water contamination.  Welzel is developing a poison-free insecticide bait.

Whitehead is a first year bioengineering Ph.D. student working with Prue Talbot, a professor of cell biology.  She is working to develop a disease-in-a-dish model representative of brain development in utero by studying neural differentiation of embryonic stem cells. This research is significant because it allows the modeling of in utero exposure to various environmental chemicals in order to study their effects on prenatal development of the central nervous system.

Honorable Mentions

NSF accords “Honorable Mention” to meritorious applicants who do not receive fellowship awards — also a significant national academic achievement. Thirteen UCR graduate students made the honorable mention list this year.  They are: Cynthia O Ajawara, Cara Nicole Fertitta, Nicole Anne Godfrey, Dietlinde Heilmayr, Ali Ahmad Khostovan, Katie Marie Magnone, Lily Ann Maxham, Brittney McKenzie, Mary Nguyen, Sonia Leann Peterson, Amanda Cantu Swanson, Thien-Toan Huu Tran and Mingna Zhuang.

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