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3 COS students earn NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Three College of Science students have been awarded prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships (GRF) by the National Science Foundation to further their graduate education.

Troy Barber, a master’s student in earth and environmental sciences; Lauren Fuess, a doctoral student in quantitative biology; and John Gurak, a senior in biochemistry, were among the 2,000 students nationwide selected from 16,500 applicants for the awards.

“The application process for NSF Graduate Research Fellowships is highly competitive, so these students are obviously all very deserving,” said James Grover, interim dean of the College of Science. “It’s a testament to the quality of students we have in the College of Science, and all of us in the College are extremely proud of them for this achievement.”

Awardees represent a diverse group of scientific disciplines and come from all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, and commonwealths and territories of the United States. They are also a diverse group of individuals. Among the 2,000 awardees, 1,053 are women, 494 are from underrepresented minority groups, 43 are persons with disabilities, and 31 are veterans.

The 2015 class of Fellows comes from 456 baccalaureate institutions, 72 more than in 2010, when the GRF Program (GRFP) began awarding 2,000 fellowships each year.

A high priority for NSF and the GRFP is increasing the diversity of the science and engineering workforce, including geographic distribution and the participation of women, underrepresented minorities, persons with disabilities, and veterans. With its emphasis on support of individuals, the program offers fellowship awards directly to graduate students selected through a national competition. The GRFP provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period (a $34,000 annual stipend and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution) for graduate study that leads to a research-based master's or doctoral degree in science or engineering.

Barber received a B.S. in Geology from UT Arlington in December and is in his first semester in the master’s program. He won the Best Paper Award in the Coal Geology Division at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Vancouver, Canada in October. He developed his project proposal as an undergraduate working in the lab of Quinhong “Max” Hu, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences. Hu says he jumped at the chance to bring Barber into his lab as an undergraduate research assistant in January 2013 when Barber approached him about gaining research experience for possible graduate studies.

“From his dedication, motivation, and intellectual acumen, over the past two years he has been contributing greatly to my research program and making tremendous progress in his career path as well,” Hu said. “As a NSF GRFP panelist myself, I truly appreciate the competitiveness of this program and am extremely happy that Troy brings this award to UT Arlington.”

As a graduate student, Barber’s thesis advisor is Ashley Griffith, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences. Barber’s project involves studying how fractures and fracture networks develop in geologic materials. The broader impacts of the research range from the energy sector (hydrocarbon and geothermal exploration) to the environmental sector (nuclear and atmospheric carbon sequestration, groundwater contaminant remediation) as well as understanding earth processes like earthquakes and meteor impact events, Barber said.

“This award is a significant accomplishment for me,” he said. “Having submitted my application as an undergraduate, I never really gave myself much of a chance. I figured that it would be good practice going through the process of developing an application, and that maybe next year I could apply again, with better chances. When I received the email notification of the award I was flabbergasted.”

Fuess began doing research her sophomore year as an undergraduate at the College of Charleston. She is a second-year Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Laura Mydlarz, associate professor of biology, where she studies immunity in marine invertebrates, primarily corals. She uses a combination of transcriptional and biochemical techniques to understand why certain individuals are more or less susceptible to disease, she said. Fuess is also interested in how a changing environment affects the ability of an organism to respond to immune challenge. In the summer of 2012 she completed a Fulbright grant in Jamaica studying the impacts of bauxite pollution on immune responses of corals on the phenotypic level.

“This was my fourth time applying for the NSF GRFP, so it's really rewarding

John Gurak, Lauren Fuess and Troy Barber, from left
to see that my hard work has finally paid off,” she said. “Because I had been unsuccessful so many times in the past, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this time I had received it. I had been awarded honorable mention last year and improved my application further based on that feedback. However, with fellowships as competitive as these I try not to be overly confident. It really means a lot that I have received this award. It is my hope that now that I have received this award, I will have more time to mentor other undergraduates who are passionate about research like I was.”

“Lauren is very deserving of this prestigious fellowship,” Mydlarz said. “She has become the first current graduate student in biology to receive this award at UT Arlington. Lauren has been interested in coral reef research for much of her career and has some very unique and original research ideas. Her winning project will forward our knowledge of coral immunity and how coral bleaching and symbiotic relationship with algae may affect corals diseases.”

Gurak will graduate in May with a B.S. in Biochemistry. He intends to pursue a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. In August 2013 he was one of less than 40 scholars nationwide to be awarded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Center for Environmental Research’s two-year fellowship for undergraduate study. For the past two years, he served as a mentor and residential assistant for UT Arlington’s Welch Summer Scholar Program, which immerses eight Texas high school students in research for five full weeks.

“Receiving the NSF fellowship gives me the opportunity to truly make the most of my graduate education,” Gurak said. “It provides me the opportunity to explore the cutting-edge research I am interested in. It’s very rewarding to be honored for all of my hard work, but even more so, it’s fulfilling to see how I have developed into a better chemist over the last four years, which I can honestly say is a result of all of the wonderful faculty and students who have helped me along the way.”

Working in the lab of Frank Foss, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Gurak’s research has focused on adapting riboflavin (vitamin B2) to perform the oxidation step in synthesizing heterocycles, which are core structures in many pharmaceuticals.

“This work aims to use green chemistry to provide a more environmentally friendly route in making these types of compounds,” Gurak said. “With flavin, these reactions can be carried out under mild conditions (oxygen gas as fuel, room temperature, no halogenated solvents, metal-free), which helps to reduce the hazardous substances in these reactions.”

Foss said he ranks Gurak as the top undergraduate student he has ever trained.

“John is both dedicated and talented,” Foss said. “His combined intelligence, curiosity, and level-headedness set him apart on a course to become an excellent independent scientist. He has been an exemplary leader for our undergraduate researchers and has challenged many graduate students with his positive and productive presence in our laboratory.”

Learn more about the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program here.

Posted April 28, 2015