NSF graduate research fellowships soar in 2011

Physics major Netta Engelhardt ’11. Front: Richard Stefan Isaac '10.

Scholars from Brandeis have been awarded nine National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships this year, the largest number in a decade.

The fellowship program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who have demonstrated exceptional promise in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics work, and who are pursuing research-based masters and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions.

Recipients often become life-long leaders who significantly contribute to both scientific innovation and teaching. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu and Google founder Sergey Brin.   

“This is really exciting," says John F.C. Wardle, Brandeis professor of astrophysics and physics department chair. “They’re competing against students from MIT, Harvard, Cal Tech and Princeton; our best students are as good as the best anywhere.”

Selection carries with it prestige, opportunity and funding. Fellows receive an annual stipend of $30,000 for three years, plus $10,500 to cover costs of tuition and fees and freedom to conduct research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose. All this often opens doors to international research and professional development opportunities.

Among those named fellows this year are physics major Netta Engelhardt ’11 and former physics majors Keith Cheveralls ’09 and Daniel Beller ’10. 

Engelhardt is currently doing her senior thesis with Matthew Headrick, assistant professor of physics.

“When I first learned that I received a fellowship I was very excited about the opportunities and possibilities that had just opened up for me,” says Englehardt. She is currently doing research on a particular branch of theoretical physics called string theory, which attempts to reconcile Einstein’s General Relativity, which describes gravity, and quantum mechanics, which describes matter on the smallest scales.

“I’m impressed not only with her ability but also with her work ethic and total fearlessness,” says Headrick.

Cheveralls is currently a first year graduate student at UC Berkeley. During his time at Brandeis he did his senior thesis with Professor of Physics Jane´ Kondev, and was a co-author on a paper that appeared last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Beller, who completed his senior thesis at Brandeis with Zvonimir Dogic , associate professor of physics and Professor Robert Meyer.  Beller is now conducting research on liquid crystals at the University of Pennsylvania.

Also among those selected this year are chemistry majors Daniel Graham ’10, Aaron Gell ’10 and Jeffrey Dobereiner ’09.

Graham and Gell are currently first-year graduate students at MIT, pursuing Ph.D.s in inorganic chemistry. Graham received highest honors in chemistry for thesis research conducted in the lab of Christine M. Thomas, assistant professor of chemistry, and is currently continuing to investigate chemical approaches to renewable energy strategies. Gell, also an inorganic chemist, conducted undergraduate research in the Brandeis chemistry department under the supervision of Bruce Foxman, professor of chemistry. 

Dobereiner was a double major in anthropology and chemistry at Brandeis and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in archaeology at Harvard University, where he is applying his chemistry knowledge to the analysis of ancient artifacts.

Richard Stefan Isaac ’10 and Orly Wapinski ’09 were also selected.

Isaac graduated magna cum laude with a B.S./M.S. degree with high honors in biochemistry. His thesis work “Functional Characterization of Regulators of Bacterial Pathogenicity and Metabolism” was done in the Petsko/Ringe Laboratory. He mentored the Science Posse and his work teaching in the biology laboratory also resulted in a paper published in CBE Life Sciences Education. Isaac is currently a graduate student at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Stefan is one of the most intuitive, conceptual thinkers I have had at Brandeis,” says Melissa Kosinski-Collins, assistant professor of biology. “I always think that I went into teaching because I will never win the Nobel Prize, but I hope I can inspire one of my students to do just that.  Stefan is an amazing scientist already and I think he has the potential to be that student.”

Wapinsky received a B.S. with highest honors in biology, doing in her thesis work “Characterization of Interferon Regulatory Factor-4 mutants” with Ruibao Ren, professor of biology. Wapinski is currently studying at Stanford.

In addition, Delora Gaskins, an incoming graduate student was awarded an NSF Fellowship to do work in the area of physical chemistry.

Gaskins is completing her undergraduate degree at California State Univeristy, Long Beach, and hopes to join the lab of Professor Irving Epstein in the fall of 2011. She spent last summer in Epstein’s lab.

Epstein recalls a time last summer when he had to attend a week-long conference in Europe. Normally in this situation, Epstein says, he’d suggest that an undergraduate researcher spend time working in the library, especially since their project was at a stage that required finding a professional glass blower. But in Gaskins’s case, Epstein says he had no hesitation leaving the project in her hands.

 “She not only made considerable progress in her own work, but located a glassblower in South Boston, visited his workshop, and got him to complete his work for us far more quickly than I could have gotten it myself,” says Epstein.

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