Twelve students from the University of Georgia have received the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program Awards (GRFP)

Twelve students from the University of Georgia have received the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program Awards (GRFP), which recognizes and supports outstanding early career graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees.

As the oldest fellowship of its kind, the GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. NSF Fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

The 2017 National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program Awards winners are the following UGA graduate students:

Henry Adams, a master’s student in the Warnell School of Forestry, studies Bsal (Batrachochytrium salamandrivivorans), a fungal pathogen introduced to Northern Europe from Eastern Asia that is linked to mass die-offs in salamander populations. Adams’ research focuses on the eventuality that Bsal is introduced to tourism-rich Costa Rica. He studies the potential impacts the fungus would have on Costa Rican species, how humans impact amphibian pathogens in Costa Rican environments, and the potential for Bsal to be introduced into North America by way of the Costa Rican ecotourism industry.

Caitlin Conn, a doctoral student in the Odum School of Ecology, investigates how changes in river flow impact important ecological functions in the Middle Oconee River in Athens, Ga. As part of UGA’s River Basin Center, Conn measures the biomass of primary producers in the river and uses chamber studies to measure productivity and nutrient uptake. Her research also examines the relationship between flow and ecological function and quantifies the consequences of various river management and climate scenarios.

Abigail Judith Courtney, a doctoral Student in the Department of Microbiology, investigates how the three-dimensional structure of DNA affects the regulation of genes in eukaryotic cells. Modifications to chromatin have been implicated in regulating genes that produce lifesaving drugs such as penicillin, cephalosporin, and statins. Courtney uses a filamentous fungus (Neurospora crassa) to examine how these chromatin modifications change gene expression and control fungal secondary metabolism. 

Alexandra Harris, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology, is addressing a gap in earlier research and methodology by considering how intelligence may affect the personality-job performance relationship. Her research explores how intelligence and each of the Five Factor Model (FFM) traits jointly influence job performance, with the goal that her research will clarify the theoretical relationship between intelligence and personality and contribute to a practical understanding of how personality impacts job performance.

Mariel Pfeifer, a doctoral student studying plant biology, is pursuing both STEM education and fungal biology research. Pfeifer was awarded a GRFP grant for her work in STEM education to describe how the shift from traditional lecture to active-learning impacts students with disabilities in STEM courses. The long-term goal of this work is to develop best practices for instructors to use in their teaching to improve retention of students with disabilities within STEM majors and ultimately STEM fields.

Sydney Plummer, a doctoral student in the Marine Sciences Department, plans to clarify the ecological and physiological functions of extracellular ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species, which have profound biogeochemical impacts on the cycling of carbon and metals) production by diverse marine phytoplankton by identifying the source of biologically produced ROS in phytoplankton and addressing its potential role in growth regulation and defense from predators.

Matthew Powers, a doctoral student in the Department of Microbiology, studies the bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii, which can survive in the absence of what are typically critical components of the outer membrane (most bacteria have two membranes). His research will allow us to better understand how these components contribute to the overall function of the outer membrane in terms of bacterial fitness and survival, further our knowledge of basic bacterial physiology, and could also provide new targets for antibiotics.

Robert Richards, a doctoral student in the Odum School of Ecology, studies the ways predators can alter the dynamics of parasites in their prey. For example, predators eating infected prey can cull parasites from the population, resulting in lower parasite levels and parasite transmission rates. Richards plans to use both mathematical models and a field system of small mammals to study how predator induced changes in behavior and population structure will alter these established effects on parasites in their prey.

Claire Teitelbaum, a doctoral student in the Odum School of Ecology, uses statistical and mathematical models to study the interactions between long-distance animal movements and disease dynamics in wildlife populations. She studies these interactions in multiple systems, including American White Ibis in Florida and ungulates around the globe, and is particularly interested in irregular nomadic animal movements. Compared to regular seasonal migrations, these nomadic movements could mean that diseases spread unpredictably between individuals and through populations.

David Vasquez, Jr., a doctoral student in the Odum School of Ecology, studies Movi (Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae), a bacterial pathogen which causes respiratory disease and population declines in bighorn sheep. In fall 2016, Movi invaded the National Bison Range in Montana, resulting in the loss of 75 percent of the bighorn sheep population. Vasquez plans to create a dynamic social network to assess changes in an individual’s risk for Movi exposure and to identify individuals who contribute most to Movi transmission.

Elizabeth Watts, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, researches the CRISPR-Cas (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat-CRISPR Associated) system. The CRISPR-Cas system is an adaptive prokaryotic immune system that targets and silences invading DNA from viruses and other mobile genetic elements. Watts’ main objective is to elucidate the first and least understood step in the system- adaptation. This step, although the exact mechanism is unknown, involves the uptake of DNA into the CRISPR locus.

Avery Wiens, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry, applies equations of quantum physics to study the motions of electrons and protons in molecules. Wiens’ current project is using quantum chemistry to study the methylene amidogen radical, a system of interest to the study of extraterrestrial atmospheres and combustion of high energy materials. Her goal is to use theoretical predictions about the molecule’s vibrational frequencies to offer insight into past chemical experiments that have presented conflicting results.