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W&L Alumni Win National Science Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowships

Four Washington and Lee University alumni have received pre-doctoral graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation. In addition, four alumni and one student received honorable mentions.

Lucy Simko ’11 did research with Sara Sprenkle, associate professor of computer science, generating test cases from statistical models of user sessions and fine-tuning parameters to generate the most effective test cases to accurately represent usage.

“Lucy’s work uncovered several open questions that we needed to address before answering the question she was originally working on and laid a foundation so that we could answer those questions,” said Sprenkle. “What impressed me most was how Lucy can paraphrase complex material in a way that demonstrates that she understands its complexities and provides additional insights. Several times, her insight made me think about the work in a different way.”

Simko is a co-author of “A Study of Usage-Based Navigation Models and Generated Abstract Test Cases for Web Applications,” which won the award for best research paper at the International Conference on Software Testing, Verification and Validation in March 2011.

A Classics and computer science double major, Simko has been working at the Department of Defense since graduation and will attend the University of Washington in the fall.

Patrick Wellborn ’15 graduated from W&L with a B.S. in chemical engineering and is a Ph.D. student in the Mechanical Engineering department at Vanderbilt University.

“Patrick is one of the most natural inventors I have ever worked with, “said Joel Kuehner, associate professor of physics and engineering. “By combining this ability with his genuine interest in benefiting society through his engineering design work, he has already embarked on an amazing career with his graduate work in enhancing surgical robots. The recognition by NSF is further confirmation that Patrick will impact the way medicine is practiced and applied.”

In Kuehner’s Machine Dynamics course, Wellborn, who is left-handed, designed a desk that could quickly convert from a right-handed to left-handed writing surface. “It could be installed as a stand-alone desk or as part of stadium seating in a lecture hall,” said Kuehner. “He invested substantial time in it, looking into possible hinge designs, specific bolts and whether wood seating could be used. He did not want to develop another second-rate, left-handed chair.”

Katie Driest ’14 graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in biochemistry and a minor in mathematics and received honors in biochemistry with her thesis “Microarray Analysis of Nonfunctional rRNA Decay in S. cerevisiae.”

After graduation, she received a Cancer Research Training Award from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health, allowing her to do research for the past two years at the NCI where she studied alternative lengthening of telomeres in osteosarcomas. She will begin her graduate studies at Stanford University this fall.

“Katie was a remarkable student at W&L,” said Fred LaRiviere, associate professor of chemistry who supervised Driest’s research project and thesis. “Not only is she exceptionally bright and intellectually curious, but she is also one of the most genuine and good-natured students that I have known.”

Joseph Taylor ’15 graduated from W&L with a B.S. in biology from W&L. He spent two years in the research lab of Larry Hurd, the Herwick Professor of Biology. His research led to one publication where he is a co-author, and he is first author on another manuscript now under review. He is a Ph.D. graduate student at Washington State University, working in the laboratory of Dr. William Snyder, one of Hurd’s former undergraduate research students.

Taylor’s research uses stable isotope and molecular gut-content analyses to track the feeding habits of predatory insects to understand how and why predator diets differ in organic versus conventional farming systems. He said, “In conventional farming (heavily disrupted systems), the ecosystem is simplified, and the niche space generalist predators occupy adjust accordingly. In organic farming, the idea is to be less disruptive and allow for more natural relationships. Part of what I’m looking at is whether under these conditions generalists’ niche space expands or remains collapsed.”

The NSF awarded honorable mentions to James Biemiller ’15, geosciences, University of Texas at Austin; Randl Dent ’15, psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University; Derek Kosciolek ’07, electrical engineering, CUNY; Joy Putney ’16, quantitative bioscience, Georgia Tech; and Eric Schwen ’15, physics, Cornell University.

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. NSF received close to 17,000 applications for the 2016 competition and made 2,000 award offers.

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