Each year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recognizes the work of the country’s most outstanding graduate students across a range of disciplines in science, engineering and mathematics. This year, nine students from the University of Nevada, Reno were awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships, including five from the College of Science. The following students will receive both notoriety and significant financial support from NSF through the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).
Lauren Benedict is finishing her second year as a doctoral student in the Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology program. She has already published a paper as a lead author in addition to being a significant co-author on two other papers, one already published and the other one accepted for publication.
“This is excellent academic performance over the first two years of a Ph.D. program clearly recognized by NSF as an indicator of continuing academic success,” said Benedict’s advisor Foundation Professor Vladimir Pravosudov.
Benedict’s research is focused on spatial cognition, cognitive flexibility and the ability to anticipate future events based on past experiences in wild chickadees. More specifically, Benedict is looking at how the differences in environmental conditions and individual variation in spatial cognitive abilities are related to differences in environment sampling strategies, cognitive flexibility and the ability to anticipate the future based on previous experiences. Benedict will be using RFID-based technology to tackle these complex questions in wild birds banded with individual PIT-tags in the Sierra Nevada.
“I am very grateful to be selected for the NSF GRFP,” Benedict said. “Being selected feels incredibly inspiring because it means that someone saw potential in me and in my work. I’ve always felt driven to learn lots and work hard, but now I feel even more driven to make the most of this opportunity and live up to the potential that the GRFP reviewers saw in my application. It’s a nuanced feeling because I am aware of how much luck goes into this application process.”
Benedict plans to use the financial support for both basic living needs and as a source for attending workshops and purchasing research resources. Her advice to students who are applying for the program is to start early, ask for advice, and “try to think of your life as a story.”
“The personal statement is a challenge— it’s hard to write about yourself, to sort through the details of your life, find the important moments and figure out what connects them to your current professional path,” Benedict said. “But it’s also a great opportunity to reflect on what led you to choose graduate school and what continues to drive you.”
Tara Christensen is a doctoral student in the Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology program under advisor Professor Lee Dyer studying plant-insect interactions.
“Insect plant interaction research has barely scratched the surface of how changes in plant chemistry can link herbivore and pollinator communities in diverse ways,” Dyer said. “From the perspective of pollinators, chemistry can also affect pollinator-parasite interactions, but this aspect of pollination biology is rarely considered, despite the importance of parasites in controlling pollinator populations. Tara’s proposed work utilizes a great mix of observational studies, experiments, mathematical modeling, and cutting-edge tools in chemistry to address these important knowledge gaps.”
Christensen is grateful for the support the NSF GRFP will provide her and her research, and she offers advice to other graduate students considering applying.
“Don't underestimate the power of a compelling personal statement,” Christensen said. “While a strong research statement is critical, your personal statement is what sets you apart. Highlight what makes your story unique and interesting, and if you have faced challenges personally and professionally you should mention them— and how you overcame them. Let your reader know the character traits you have cultivated that will allow you to thrive as a researcher.”
Rocio Olvera is a second-year graduate student in the Integrative Neuroscience doctoral program. She is interested in studying the neural mechanisms responsible for reactive behaviors as a result of anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. She is currently working on understanding the development of natural visual behavior in response to novel stimuli. Olvera uses the mouse as a model organism to study how visual information is converted into environmentally appropriate behavioral output.
“I specifically study the role the periaqueductal gray plays in the generation of different types of defensive behaviors in response to threat,” Olvera says. “I wish to gain a better understanding of how sensory stimuli is converted into behavioral output and investigate malfunctions in this neural mechanism that can lead to various anxiety-based psychiatric disorders.”
Olvera’s advisor, Jennifer Hoy, speaks highly of Olvera and her research.
“She is simply an outstanding student who fearlessly takes on daunting challenges (transitioning from clinical psychology to neural circuits and genetics), is remarkably resilient to setbacks and finds the time to give a tremendous amount back to her community and the greater good,” Hoy said. “Rocio has worked hard to earn this recognition for her potential to impact our understanding of the brain and behavior.”
Olvera is honored to have been chosen for the NSF GRFP.
“Having grown up with little opportunity for academic advancements, I must say that the most significant part of being awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship is the tremendous amount of trust that is being placed on me by such a prestigious organization as the National Science Foundation,” Olvera said. “Coming from a less-than-ideal background—minority, female, low-income household, and first-generation college student—high expectations were never really the norm. I am incredibly honored to be placed in a position in which I can freely work on what I am passionate about with the financial and professional support provided by the NSF. To me, this means that my abilities, my passion, and my person are believed to be capable enough to successfully contribute to the advancement of science.”
As a graduating senior in the Physics bachelor of science program, Guglielmo Panelli is the youngest of the University’s NSF GRFP awardees. Panelli has been working under the Sara Louise Hartman Professor in Physics, Andrei Derevianko, and has been a key contributor to the University’s search for dark matter using atomic clocks onboard satellites of the Global Positioning System. Cosmological observations indicate that 85% of all matter in the Universe is dark matter, yet its microscopic composition remains a mystery. Identification of the nature of dark matter is one of the grand challenges to modern physics and cosmology.
“The most striking of Guglielmo’s strengths is his persistence and ability to maintain his focus when things did not go right,” Derevianko said. “I have never seen Guglielmo frustrated. Difficulties invited more brainstorming that ultimately led to resolving the issues.”
Panelli will be attending Stanford University in the fall where he will be pursuing his doctorate in physics. He is both grateful and honored to have the support of the NSF GRFP throughout his graduate studies.
“Receiving this award is arguably my most noteworthy achievement to date,” Panelli said. “The financial assistance that accompanies this award provides me with more freedom to pursue my interests in graduate school.”
With the support of the NSF GRFP, Panelli will be taking an extra rotation with a research group in his first year of graduate school. He will also have the ability to postpone teaching until later in his graduate career, allowing him to focus on finding a research group.
“Along with this new freedom that the award provides, it has also given me an extra boost of confidence to alleviate some feelings of imposter syndrome that may still be lingering,” Panelli said.
Panelli suggests all undergraduates applying to graduate school in a STEM discipline apply for the award. He also suggests getting started early.
“Although starting early means having a full application draft well before the submission deadline, it also means doing teaching and outreach activities in your sophomore and junior year of college so you have real experience to explicate in the personal history aspect of the application,” Panelli said. “As for getting help, there are numerous opportunities for support on campus such as the semesterly NSF GRFP workshops and the Writing Center. Many useful online aids exist too, the most important being public applications of students who previously received the fellowship.”
Keely Rodriguez is a doctoral student in the Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology program working in Jamie Voyle’s lab. Rodriguez is interested in host-pathogen dynamics between anurans and Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a devastating fungal pathogen that has wreaked havoc on frog and toad species across the globe. Rodriguez is looking to understand the immune responses of host species that may be allowing their numbers to bounce back despite being brought to the brink of extinction.
“We are very proud of Keely and eager to see the outcomes of this important research,” Voyles said of Rodriguez’s achievement and research.
Rodriguez is honored to have been selected for the NSF GRFP. Not only will the financial support cover her tuition for three years, but the additional stipend paid directly to Rodriguez alleviates many of the financial burdens of graduate school.
“Since I will not need to worry about where my money is coming from or how I will pay tuition, this really opens the doors for unlimited possibilities,” Rodriguez said. “Receiving the NSF GRFP means that someone believes in me. It conflicts heavily with my impostor syndrome. It tells me that I am on the right track and reaffirms ideas that I can achieve goals if I have the audacity to put my mind to it.”
She also offered up advice for other graduate students considering applying for the fellowship.
“Get as many people to review the proposal as possible. Have your mom read it, have past recipients and applicants read it and then have your committee read it,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone can give good feedback. Emphasize your strengths and ask yourself how they allowed you to become who you are today. The personal statement took a lot of introspection. It was an emotional roller coaster. Both statements were edited heavily from the first draft. It was as though my PI and I were playing tennis, sending the proposals back and forth, multiple times even in a day. It was grueling, but the hard work pays off.”
Kevin So worked as an undergraduate researcher under professor Pedro Miura from 2014 to 2018. He continued to work with Miura after graduating and published a paper in Cell Reports with Miura and others from the University in 2019. So was selected for the NSF GRFP this year and credits his time in Miura’s lab for helping launch his career in science.
“Training under Dr. Miura was the initial launching pad for my interests in science,” So said. “During that time, I developed an interest in molecular biology and deepened a curiosity towards the mechanistic questions.”
In his research now funded by NSF, So hopes to understand the molecular mechanism that regulates genome organization.
“It’s been recently appreciated that genomes are organized into loops and certain factors govern this process,” So said. “My project aims to identify these factors and how they hold these loops.”
So plans to pursue his doctorate at Harvard University in the fall, and, as an alumnus of the College of Science, his accomplishments will continue to positively reflect on the University.
"Kevin was the first student in my lab when I started my group,” Miura said. “I couldn't have been more fortunate. He was an outstanding undergraduate researcher—operating at the level of a senior grad student for much of his time in the lab. His work led to the first NIH grant awarded to my lab and he was co-author on a recent major paper. He is fearless and ambitious, curious and willing to tackle the most challenging research questions. The University of Nevada, Reno is proud to have him as an alum, and we expect great things to come as he pursues his Ph.D. at Harvard."