Research Excellence: Ten Aggies Honored in NSF Grad Research Fellow Search

Ten Utah State University scholars are honorees of the prestigious 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship search. The Aggies, whose awards are collectively valued at about $690,000, are among nearly 2,000 students selected from more than 13,000 applicants nationwide.

USU’s 2021 NSF Graduate Research Fellows are graduating seniors Noah Braeger ’21 (Mathematics & Statistics and Physics) and Miles Robertson ’21 (Biology and Mathematics & Statistics), along with USU graduate students Bailey McFarland ’20 (Biological Engineering), Rosemary Hopson (Biology and Ecology Center) and Soren Struckman (Wildland Resources and Ecology Center).

Recent USU graduate Emilee Madsen ‘17 (Biological Engineering), as well as USU graduate students Savannah Adkins (Biology and Ecology Center), Alec Arditti (Watershed Sciences), Kaitlyn Crouch ‘20 (Geosciences) and Valerie Martin (Biology and Ecology Center), received honorable mention.

“NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are the nation’s most prestigious graduate awards in science and engineering,” says USU President Noelle Cockett. “We applaud the accomplishments of these young researchers, particularly during this challenging year. Their NSF recognition is a testament to the outstanding quality of USU’s academic and research programs, as well as the high caliber of our students and faculty.”

The fellowship program provides up to three years of support for each awardee’s graduate education, including a $34,000 annual stipend, along with a yearly $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees, as well as the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. or foreign institution of graduate education they choose.

Noah Braeger ‘21 (Fellow), Mathematics, Destination to be determined

Braeger, who served as USU Science Senator during the 2020-21 academic year, graduates from Utah State this spring with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics. Named the College of Science’s 2021 Peak Prize Undergraduate Researcher of the Year, the Logan, Utah native has pursued a number of research projects with Department of Mathematics and Statistics faculty mentor Andreas Malmendier, including use of mirror symmetry, a concept from string theory, to prove a number-theoretic result about K3 surfaces, special mathematical spaces. Following graduation, Braeger will participate in the National Security Agency Director’s Summer Program and hopes to enter a doctoral program in the fall.

Bailey McFarland ‘20 (Fellow), Biological Engineering, Utah State University

A Draper, Utah native, McFarland graduated with his bachelor’s degree in biological engineering from USU in 2020. As a Fellow of USU’s Engineering Undergraduate Research Program, he worked as a research assistant in Biological Engineering faculty member Yu Huang’s tissue engineering lab. He also worked in USU’s spider silk lab for two years. Advised by Huang, McFarland is pursuing a doctoral degree in biological engineering. “I’m interested in understanding the effects of radiation and microgravity on the human brain,” McFarland says. “My research focuses on using mini-brains uniquely developed in Dr. Huang’s lab and exposing them to these conditions. The goal is to find ways to protect our brains, both on the ground and in space.”

Rosemary Hopson (Fellow), Ecology/Biology, Utah State University

A native of Gillette, Wyoming, Hopson completed undergraduate studies at the University of Wyoming and is pursuing a doctoral degree in ecology at USU. In addition to cross-country skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer, she enjoys a new interest, bird-watching, which is a perfect fit with her research pursuits. With Department of Biology and Ecology Center faculty member Noelle Beckman, Hopson is studying the seed dispersal of fruit-producing understory shrubs by red-capped manakins. Manakins, a group of bird species found in the American tropics, are important seed dispersers in tropical ecosystems. “I will be looking at how the disperser effectiveness of the birds changes under the effects of fragmentation, in conjunction with climate change in Panama,” Hopson says.

Miles Robertson ‘21 (Fellow), Ecology and Evolution, Florida State University

A native of DuPont, Washington, Robertson graduates from USU this spring with a bachelor’s degree in Molecular/Cellular Biology and Mathematics/Statistics Composite, with minors in Computer Science and Anticipatory Intelligence. The College of Science’s 2021 Scholar of the Year, Robertson’s research experience reaches from machine learning to ecological modeling to protein structure-solving. He will soon publish his first paper as a first-author in the journal Hydrobiologia, with faculty mentor, Edd Hammill of USU’s Department of Watershed Sciences. In the Fall, Robertson will pursue doctoral studies at Florida State University. “I’ll use differential equations and graph theory to investigate the effects of genetic diversity within hosts on the relationship between host biodiversity and the spread of disease,” Robertson says. “This may have implications of helping predict disease spread as a result of biodiversity loss from climate change.”

Soren Struckman (Fellow), Ecology/Wildland Resources, Utah State University

Originally from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Struckman obtained a bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary in biology and applied mathematics. Since then, he has worked on research and conservation projects on the United States’ east and west coasts. At Utah State, Struckman is pursuing a doctoral degree in ecology. With faculty advisor James Lutz in the Department of Wildland Resources and the USU Ecology Center, he is studying old-growth forests of western North America. “My research will look at how fire and climate interact to influence tree mortality and regeneration in these important ecosystems,” Struckman says. “This will help land managers keep our forests alive and healthy in an era of rapid environmental change.”

Savannah Adkins (Honorable Mention), Ecology, Utah State University

A Carlsbad, California native, Adkins completed undergraduate studies at Anderson University. She participated in an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates and was awarded a Leave No Trace Hot Spot Grant. At USU, Adkins is pursuing a doctoral degree in ecology with faculty advisor John Stark in the Department of Biology and the Ecology Center, as well as former USU faculty member Bonnie Waring of Imperial College London. “I study how soils can be used as a natural climate solution,” says Adkins, who received USU’s Joseph E. Greaves Endowed Scholarship. “Soils have the ability to store excess atmospheric carbon dioxide through the decomposition of plant material. But, as climate change progresses, soils are more likely to release carbon dioxide than to store it. I study the molecular interactions within soils to understand how we can better manage soils for long-term storage of carbon.”

Alec Arditti (Honorable Mention), Watershed Sciences, Utah State University

A New Jersey native, Arditti studied environmental science and GIS at the University of Maryland. Upon graduating, he immediately set off for California to “explore bigger mountains.” After a brief stint researching fire ecology, he worked for six years in “a slew of stormwater hydrology positions.” This experience, coupled with his growing knowledge of encroaching drought and wildfires, spawned a fascination with the functioning of burned watersheds. At Utah State, Arditti is pursuing a doctoral degree in watershed sciences. With faculty mentors Patrick Belmont and Brendan Murphy in the Department of Watershed Sciences, he is researching how post-wildfire wood and geomorphology dynamics impact sediment transport within stream networks. Arditti hopes this research will better protect water resources and aquatic populations in the West.

Kaitlyn Crouch ’20 (Honorable Mention), Geosciences, Utah State University

Crouch hails from Willard, Utah, and earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from USU in 2020. During her undergrad career, she was selected for the inaugural cohort of USU’s Peak Summer Research Fellows. Crouch is currently completing a master’s degree in geology with faculty mentor James Evans in the Department of Geosciences and has been accepted to the doctoral geoscience program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her current research uses drill core drilled through a fault in Southern California to quantify the physical and chemical properties, from the macro- to microscale, of fault-related rocks that formed at about 2.5-kilometers depth. “The quantification of these properties will help provide constraints in seismic energy budgets and recurrence models,” says Crouch, who received a Geological Society of America Continental Scientific Drilling Division Grant to support her research.

Emilee Madsen ‘17 (Honorable Mention), Biomedical Engineering, Purdue University

A Logan, Utah native, Madsen earned a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering from USU in 2017. As an undergrad, she was involved in a number of research projects, including the eXploration Systems and Habitation (X-Hab) project, which aimed to help students develop innovative technologies that address issues associated with long-term space travel. She was named the College of Engineering’s 2017 Peak Prize Undergraduate Researcher of the Year. Madsen is currently a second-year doctoral student in biomedical engineering at Purdue University, where she researches point-of-care medical devices and biosensors. Her research focuses on developing a minimally invasive wearable sensor for continuous glucose monitoring.

Valerie Martin (Honorable Mention), Ecology, Utah State University

A native of Monterrey, California, Martin is a graduate of Webster University. With Department of Biology and Ecology Center faculty member Robert Schaeffer, she is exploring the ecological interactions between plants, flower-visiting insects and the microbes that inhabit flowers. “Recently, nectar-inhabiting microbes, including yeasts and bacteria, have been identified as potentially significant mediators of plant-insect interactions,” says Martin, who is the recipient of multiple grants and scholarships, including Botanical Society of America Graduate Student Research Award, the Mycological Society of America Robert W. Lichtwardt Student Research Award, USU’s Joseph E. Greaves Endowed Scholarship and the USU Ecology Center Graduate Student Award. “My study combines foraging theory with microbiological and analytical chemical techniques to test whether nectar robber-vectored microbes shape the behaviors of floral visitors.”

This year’s USU honorees join 69 Aggies who have received fellowships and 58 USU students or alumni who have received honorable mentions since 1999.

According to the NSF website, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program helps to ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity. The 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.

USU public information officers Traci Hillyard, Quinney College of Natural Resources; Anessa Pennington, College of Engineering and Mary-Ann Muffoletto, College of Science, contributed to this announcement.

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