Brett McKinney - The University of Tulsa

Brett McKinney

Students and alumni awarded highly competitive graduate studies fellowships

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) administers some of STEM’s most prestigious awards. These fellowships comprise a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees. Because of this, the program is highly selective (in 2020, 13,000 people applied but only 2,000 received funding). This year, five University of Tulsa students received GRFP fellowships – clearly, their futures are shining bright.

Lanie McKinney

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Lanie McKinney

TU Student Association vice president and aspiring plasma physicist Lanie McKinney (Class of 2022) will be putting her fellowship to good use at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. There, she will work under Assistant Professor Carmen Guerra-Garcia in the Aerospace Plasma Group.

McKinney is thrilled to have been chosen from such a densely packed field of candidates. With her double major in physics and applied mathematics and her minor in computer science, McKinney is particularly interested in applications of plasma physics. “Plasma is the most common state of ordinary matter in the universe. Stars are composed of plasma and lightning strikes create plasma,” explained McKinney. “Plasma is essentially an ionized or charged gas, which gives it unique properties, such as being electrically conductive, and its motion is partially governed by collective and externally applied electromagnetic fields.” It is this component, along with plasma’s wide-ranging applications in technology, including nuclear fusion, space propulsion, space physics and semiconductor manufacturing, that McKinney hopes to address in her graduate research.

As she reflected on her TU years, McKinney emphasized the encouragement she has received from Brett McKinney (no relation), a professor of computer science and bioinformatics. McKinney was thrilled to learn that Lanie’s hard work had been rewarded so generously, noting the privilege he felt to be a part of her academic journey through the theoretical physics research they worked on together. “Lanie adds so much to the university, and she is highly deserving of this honor,” stated McKinney. “I am excited to watch her career develop at MIT and beyond.”

Emily Cook

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Emily Cook

Biochemistry and math major Emily Cook (Class of 2022) will be attending the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign next fall to pursue a doctorate in chemistry. With her NSF GRFP fellowship in hand, Cook plans on specializing in materials chemistry, a process that involves synthesizing and characterizing materials for biological applications.

“At TU, I have done research on the interaction of amino acids on an atomically thin silver layer on a gold surface using electrochemical scanning tunneling microscopy,” Cook noted. “When I’m in graduate school, I would like to research nanoparticle synthesis and functionalization for biosensing or using biomolecules to create materials with useful properties like self-healing capabilities.”

Cook credits Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Erin Iski as a major influence in her development as a scientist over the past four years. “Emily has been an outstanding member of my research lab,” said Iski. “In the time we have worked together, she has not only helped to collect publishable data, but has also helped to write two peer-reviewed journal articles, mentored students, acted as lab manager for two years and received numerous awards at international conferences.” Iski knew when she first met Cook that she was extremely capable and bright, and feels gratified seeing her recognized for her work and future career goals. “I am excited to see where her future leads,” Iski stated; “no doubt it will be amazing.”

Olivia Pletcher

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Olivia Pletcher

Olivia Pletcher is currently working toward a Ph.D. in TU’s Department of Biological Sciences as a member of the Brown Lab. As a student in the field of ecology, Pletcher studies the reproductive success of cliff swallows. A member of the Cliff Swallow Project, Pletcher’s interest revolves around the fluctuating selection of group size among these birds.

“I go to western Nebraska every summer and I monitor about 40-50 colonies, which can contain anywhere from one to over 2,000 nests,” reported Pletcher. Her observations allow her to keep track of nestling survival, reproductive success and ectoparasite loads of nests throughout the summer. “My goal is to compare the reproductive success of cliff swallows across different sized colonies throughout several years.”

Man and woman smiling for the camera outside in the wilderness
Pletcher and Brown

While she was still an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Pletcher was hired on as a research assistant at TU by Professor of Biological Science Charles Brown, whom she helped with his long-term fieldwork on cliff swallows. At TU, Brown is now supervising Pletcher’s doctoral studies. “Olivia loves to research, and she already has more field experience than many graduate students,” said Brown. “I expect her to have many important research findings by the time she finishes graduate school. I congratulate Olivia on an impressive research career to date, and believe the sky is the limit for her.”

Maddie Pickett

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Maddie Pickett

TU alumna Maddie Pickett (BS ‘20), now a student in the doctoral program in biomedical engineering at The University of Texas-Austin, also received NSF GRFP funding. Pickett’s program takes an average of 5.5 years to complete and requires both coursework and work under an advisor. At UT-Austin, Picket is a member of The Parekh Lab, which uses a variety of microscopy methods, among them coherent Raman and nonlinear fluorescence, to study fundamental processes in soft matter systems from force transduction in cells and materials to subtle biochemical modifications in metabolic disorders. “My research aims to use a dynamic in vitro cell culture model and advanced label-free, nonlinear microscopy to evaluate the impact of extracellular matrix orientation and density on postpartum breast cancer cellular metabolism,” explained Pickett.

One of the most important benefits of the fellowship for Pickett is the autonomy it will provide for her as a researcher. Because the fellowship comes with a stipend, Pickett is relieved knowing she will not have to rely on external sources of funding for the rest of her doctoral studies. She also noted the networking benefits of the award for allowing her to connect with other recipients and travel far and wide to participate in important conferences.

Pickett credits her undergraduate research mentor and Wellspring Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Gabriel LeBlanc with having contributed a great deal to her scholarly success. For his part, LeBlanc noted the various leadership roles, including the SA presidency, that Pickett took on outside of the rigorous curriculum in the chemistry and biochemistry department. “If the NSF GRFP fellowship represents one of the most prestigious awards that a graduate student can earn,” stated LeBlanc, “then Maddie is a stellar example of the type of researcher that the fellowship is meant to support. I am eager to see the products of her research over the next few years!

Samuel Taylor

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Samuel Taylor

Samuel Taylor (BS ’20) will begin doctoral studies in cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, in the fall. Currently working as a research specialist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR), Taylor received his degrees from TU in computer science and mathematics with a minor in psychology in 2020. While at TU, Taylor’s research involved mission-planning and path-planning systems for unmanned aerial vehicles in adversarial, multi-agent environments: “In brief,” said Taylor, “artificial decision-making systems for drones.” Taylor also carried out a summer research internship, jointly with research at TU and LIBR, that served as the basis for his passion for the cognitive sciences.

His current research at LIBR involves the design and study of computational models of decision-making as they pertain to better phenotyping of neuropsychiatric disorders. “I study the decision-making processes of people with anxiety, depression or substance use disorders to determine if there are significant, quantifiable differences in those populations from populations without those disorders. This may provide better treatment targets and help the field move towards individualized diagnoses, alongside an improved understanding of the dynamics underlying cognition generally.”

“In many ways,” said Taylor, “my research interests have become a fusion of what I am currently working on at LIBR and what I previously worked on at TU.” Taylor’s fellowship will aid his research at UC San Diego involving the computational and mathematical modeling of mental processes and neural signals at the intersection of computer science, psychology, neuroscience and mathematics: “I am particularly focused on probabilistic models of human decision-making, specifically the relationship between decision-making algorithms in artificial intelligence and decision-making processes in humans.”

Hazel Rogers Associate Professor of Media Studies Ben Peters recalls Taylor’s studious qualities as top tier: “In over 15 years of teaching high-octane students around the world, I would rank Samuel as one of the most natively philosophically and naturally broadminded interlocutors on science and technology as a humane question.” Taylor entered Peter’s Honors course years ago, and since then, Peters remarked, he has been “fortunate to be regularly dazzled and lifted by Samuel’s quiet, brilliant ways.”

Do you have a research interest in need of funding? Then check out the external funding opportunities offered by The University of Tulsa Graduate School!

TU alumnus and Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree at the leading edge of oncology research

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Caleb Lareau

There are many reasons why University of Tulsa alumnus Caleb Lareau (BS ’15) might be a familiar name. Most recently, the one that vaulted him into high-octane national awareness was his inclusion in Forbes’ prestigious 30 Under 30 list.

Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Lareau received this accolade in recognition of his research and potential in the field of cancer-focused immunotherapy. “While I knew I was a finalist, I didn’t actually know I’d made the list until I woke up one morning and saw myself on the website – and felt a wave of surprise and excitement,” Lareau remarked. “I’m hopeful that this public profile might help to expedite some of my scientific goals, including raising funds for the pressing questions that I want to answer.”

Beyond the potential for financial support, there is an even more powerful benefit Lareau hopes will spring from his Forbes recognition. “One of the major motivators to do what I do every day is that there is still so much we don’t understand about human disease, and we still have a long way to go to prevent tragedies, such as happened to our family friend Sarah Harmon (BS ’21), who passed away unexpectedly last December” said Lareau. What means “the most” to him about this honor “is the hope that I can catalyze my profile into more meaningful opportunities to research and develop new treatments for complex disease.”

Creativity and problem-solving: The TU foundation

Life as a Forbes honoree and postdoctoral cancer researcher at one of the country’s top universities is a few miles away from Lareau’s more prosaic origins.

Born in a quiet corner of the Great Plains, Lareau spent most of his formative years in tiny Hugoton, Kansas (“just north of 3,000 inhabitants”), and slightly larger Enid, Oklahoma. But even during high school, Lareau knew he wanted someday to become a scientific researcher.

For that reason, he ultimately chose TU to begin his academic journey: “The campus felt like a great place to learn and grow, and the university’s awesome support for undergraduate research really impressed me. The ability to devote meaningful time each semester to research proved, essentially, to be on-the-job-training for what I am doing now – deploying creative solutions to really hard problems.”

person wearing red and black academic robes standing beside a statue
Lareau wearing his doctoral robes beside a statue of John Harvard

At TU, Lareau found faculty and staff who energetically supported his aspirations. During all four years of Lareau’s undergraduate studies, Professor of Computer Science Brett McKinney served as his research advisor. Together, they published six peer-reviewed papers, which, Lareau said, “was really the vital training and experience I needed to succeed in graduate school and beyond.”

“The summer before his freshman year, Caleb contacted me about research opportunities in bioinformatics and statistical genetics,” recalled McKinney. “When he arrived at TU, I put him to work alongside the graduate students in my lab and, before I knew it, he was cranking out research and winning scholarships. Harvard was quick to snatch him up for his Ph.D. studies and then Stanford for a post-doctoral fellowship. I am excited to see the national leader in biomedical research Caleb will become.”

Other members of the TU community who provided invaluable support to Lareau were Professor of Chemistry Gordon Purser, his academic advisor in the Department of Chemistry; Professor of Marketing Charles Wood, the director of the NOVA Fellowship, which introduced Lareau to entrepreneurship, venture capital and developing a start-up; and Steve Denton, who “emboldened” Lareau to step into a leadership role as an Orientation Leader.

In addition, Lareau salutes Nona Charleston, who, as the director of TU’s Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships, spent “countless hours” with him discussing his prospects and making him “believe that I could hang with the best and the brightest around the country.” Through Charleston’s advice and encouragement, Lareau wound up receiving several major awards, including a Barry M. Goldwater Fellowship (2013) and a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (2015).

After Tulsa

Lareau’s NSF fellowship gave him the wherewithal for the next stage of his academic journey: doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School. “My time at TU solidified my desire to be a professional scientist, and I knew that to succeed at the highest levels I would need to earn a Ph.D.,” said Lareau. By studying at Harvard, Lareau had access not only to one of the country’s finest academic communities, but also “the density of top-notch research hospitals in the Boston area really opened my mind to what was possible at the intersection of clinical and medical science.”

Upon completion of his doctoral studies, Lareau packed his kit and moved to the other side of the country to take up a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford, where he now devotes his time to studying cancer immunotherapy. “The basic idea here,” Lareau explained, “is that we can develop drugs to train our own immune systems to fight cancer. What’s particularly exciting is that patients who receive immunotherapy typically do much better than those who undergo standard chemotherapies.”

The specific focus of Lareau’s investigations is to understand and manipulate the ways our immune cells sense and kill cancer. In doing so, Lareau hopes to help expedite the application of immunotherapies to cancer types with the largest unmet patient need. As an example, Lareau’s research utilizes cutting-edge technologies, such as single-cell sequencing, that can reveal new opportunities at the molecular level, as he recently argued in a peer-reviewed article.

His golden horizon

two people photographed from behind while seated on a boulder gazing out at a mountainous landscape
Lareau with his partner on a cool summer night overlooking the Yosemite Valley

Life in Northern California clearly suits Lareau beyond the benefits of its vibrant research community. In his free time, Lareau immerses himself in the region’s countryside, taking great joy in hiking through the wilderness and exploring its national parks. Indeed, once his postdoc at Stanford wraps up, Lareau hopes to become a professor in the San Francisco Bay Area (although he is open to relocating another major medical hub), continuing to balance a great quality of life with exploring new oncology-treatment technologies and methods.

On the more immediate horizon, Lareau aims this spring to launch Cartography Biosciences, of which he is a scientific co-founder. The major therapeutic challenge Cartography tries to solve is to develop immunotherapies that will allow for more patients with different cancers to receive the outstanding clinical benefits currently restricted to a small set of cancers.

Lareau and his colleagues expect to specialize in chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy (hence the name CARTography). According to Lareau, the Food and Drug Administration has approved CAR T therapies only for certain types of leukemias and lymphomas, but patients who receive these treatments tend to have “unbelievably good” outcomes compared to chemotherapy.

“If our venture is successful,” said Lareau, “we hope that a whole new class of patients with many different cancers can be treated with these really powerful therapies.” And if his mightily impressive track record is any guide to the future, we should all expect to be reading about Lareau and the fulfillment of his lofty ambitions for many years to come.

TU’s Office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships was instrumental in helping Caleb Lareau gain funding to support his academic goals. Make an appointment to discuss your interests and aspirations today.