The Columns

Five W&L Alumni Win National Science Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowships For the 2017 competition, NSF received over 13,000 applications and made 2,000 award offers.

— by on March 24th, 2017

Five Washington and Lee University alumni have received pre-doctoral graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF). In addition, one student received an honorable mention.

Eric Schwen ’15 graduated from W&L with a major in physics and was one of three valedictorians. He is working on his Ph.D. at Cornell University, focusing on condensed matter physics.

While at W&L, he was a Johnson Scholar and used his Johnson Opportunity Grant to travel to Madrid and Paris to attend physics conferences. He won a Goldwater Scholarship his junior year and published “A Two-State Stochastic Model for Nanoparticle Self-Assembly: Theory, Computer Simulations and Applications” and “Cooperative Sequential-Adsorption Model in Two Dimensions with Experimental Applications for Ionic Self-Assembly of Nanoparticles” with professors Dan and Irina Mazilu.

Joy Putney ’16, a physics-engineering and biology double major, is pursuing a Ph.D. in quantitative biosciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“My research will answer some of the questions at the interface of neuroscience and biomechanics using invertebrate models, which will have significant broader impact on society and human health,” she said. “Understanding principles of nervous system function has been highlighted by President Barack Obama as a major research goal through the BRAIN initiative. Invertebrates are an excellent model system to extract underlying principles of nervous system function due to the relative simplicity of their nervous systems compared to higher order animals. Increasing our knowledge of motor control and encoding mechanisms used to accomplish behaviors will enable the design of better brain-machine interfaces and neuroprostheses that use a mechanistic understanding of how the nervous system functions. This has the potential to transform how we treat neural disorders and replace lost biological functions.”

While at W&L, Putney used her Johnson Opportunity Grant to travel to the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, in Auckland, New Zealand, to conduct research in the Gastrointestinal Lab. There, she used experimental data and simulations to investigate the regulation of the stomach and small intestines.

Gabriella Kitch ’16 earned her B.S. in geology, with a minor in environmental studies. While at W&L, she held an internship with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science Center in Richmond, Virginia, as a part of a program led by biology professor Robert Humston. The following summer, she attended an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Program at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Michigan, where she measured mercury concentrations in a small watershed. That project became her honors thesis, “Terrestrial Mercury Cycling in Northern Michigan: Honeysuckle Creek Watershed and Burt Lake.”

Before starting at Northwestern University, Kitch assisted a lab member in taking water samples from rivers and estuaries in the Canadian Archipelago. At Northwestern, where Kitch is pursuing a Ph.D. in geochemistry, she is using non-traditional stable isotope systems, such as calcium isotopes, to look at surface ocean changes during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). “The PETM (~56 million years ago) was a period of geologically rapid climate change caused by a large carbon release and therefore may have implications for understanding how the earth system will react to anthropogenic climate change,” she said.

Randl Dent ’15 majored in psychology and sociology and was part of professor Megan Fulcher’s Gender Development Lab, where she designed and implemented a study that examined the influence gendered toys have on gendered play, as well as efficacy for gendered skills and tasks in children who were 4- to 7-years old.

She is working on her Ph.D. in health psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “My master’s thesis, on which my NSF grant was based, examines the impact of feature-based bias on help-seeking behaviors in Black students,” she said. “In the first study, I will be examining how Black students’ mental healthcare utilization may differ based on their Afrocentric features (i.e., features that signify African descent, such as darker skin and eye colors, wider nose, thicker lips, coarse hair). In the second study, I will be using an experimental design to examine whether Black students would prefer to see a counselor whose Afrocentric features are most similar to their own. It is my hope that my research will increase the public’s awareness of feature-based bias and its impact on help-seeking behaviors in Black students. Awareness is a critical first step in providing supportive outlets to Black students. In the long term, I hope that findings will also provide the foundation for future intervention research focusing on improving Black students’ help-seeking behaviors, which will ultimately reduce the pervasive educational and health disparities.”

James Biemiller ’15 is a Ph.D. student in geological sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. He double majored in geology and physics and completed a senior thesis in geology with professor Dave Harbor, “Plucking as a Mechanism of Fluvial Erosion on Mars.” He won a Goldwater scholarship his junior year. Additional W&L summer research experiences included a project on 3-D photogrammetry with professor Chris Connors and a project on uplift-erosion dynamics in Argentina with professors Dave Harbor and Jeff Rahl.

“My graduate research focuses on active tectonics and fault dynamics, particularly on low-angle normal faults,” he said. “I use geophysical data and numerical models to monitor and simulate stresses on faults in the earth to better understand their potential to rupture in large earthquakes.”


Melina Knabe ’17 received an honorable mention from the NSF. In 2016, the neuroscience major and philosophy minor won a research grant from the Virginia Academy of Science to fund her senior thesis research project, “Language Translates to Executive Functions: Investigating the Bilingual Advantage in Inhibitory Control.”

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. For the 2017 competition, NSF received over 13,000 applications and made 2,000 award offers.