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.
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.”
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 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.”
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.”
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 (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.”