Students earn prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Meghan Still & Chad Johnson

Two newly minted bachelor’s degree recipients from ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, the core college on the West campus, have successfully navigated the competitive process to earn a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Applied computing major Jennifer Ortiz and life sciences major Meghan Still will pursue doctoral degrees with assistance from the fellowship, which provides support including a $30,000 annual stipend.

“I plan to attend the University of Washington to obtain a Ph.D. in computer science,” Ortiz said. “Eventually, I hope to become a professor in order to teach computer science and research at the university level.”

Still was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin. “I will pursue my Ph.D. within the ecology, evolution and behavior program,” she said. “I am interested in studying the role of chemical and olfactory communication within anuran systems – those of frogs and toads. My ultimate goal is to procure a professorship at a major research institution.”

Roger Berger, director of New College’s Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences (MNS), said Ortiz and Still exceled not only in their coursework but also in their collaboration in research projects with faculty.

“Engaging in research during their undergraduate career benefits students on multiple levels,” Berger said. “They learn about the process, the challenges and setbacks researchers sometimes encounter, and the need to be flexible and look for alternatives when those challenges arise. They also gain a competitive advantage when it comes time to apply for graduate school and financial support, as evidenced by the success Jennifer and Meghan have achieved.”

Ortiz participated in multiple projects with MNS faculty members Suzanne Dietrich and Omayra Ortega.

“Jennifer worked with me as an undergraduate research assistant on an NSF grant for work that is looking at efficient techniques for integrating distributed data in various formats,” Dietrich said. “She worked on the development and implementation of a criminal justice database performance benchmark in support of that project.”

Ortiz also collaborated with Dietrich through the NCUIRE (New College Undergraduate Inquiry and Research Experiences) program, which enables students to earn stipends working with faculty on research projects. The NCUIRE project resulted in the publication of a paper with Ortiz as first author. “Learning from Database Performance Benchmarks,” with co-authors Dietrich and post-doctoral research assistant Mahesh Chaudhari, was published in the Journal of Computing in Small Colleges. Ortiz recently presented the paper at the Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges (CCSC) Conference in Stockton, Calif.

“Jennifer has clearly illustrated her ability to be an independent thinker and to take the initiative to explore various alternatives and to find related work in support of her ideas,” Dietrich said. “Given her career goal of becoming a professor at an academic institution that values both teaching and research, Jennifer will be an exemplary role model for women and minorities in computer science.”

With Ortega, Ortiz participated in an NCUIRE project to develop and refine stochastic models for modeling epidemics of the rotavirus infection, which causes the deaths of approximately a half-million children annually around the world, and to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine vaccination affordability and practicability as a humane solution for the community.

Ortega said NCUIRE plays a critical role in assisting New College students by providing financial support so they can carve out time in their busy schedules to work with faculty on research projects.

“I believe it is essential to a person’s growth as a scientist to do research with a mentor, but how do you squeeze in a research project on top of all of your other responsibilities? New College has shown its dedication to student engagement and student academic achievement by creating and continuing this program,” Ortega said. “Jennifer’s progression to a scholar, scientist, and exceptional student has been empowered through her participation in the NCUIRE program.”

Ortiz says NCUIRE was a valuable learning experience for her. “I was able to attend events that allowed me to share my research and also discover what projects my peers have been working on. I feel this program has built a sense of community among New College students who participate in research. It is great to be able to share experiences and learn from others,” she said.

Meanwhile, Still worked with life science professor Chad Johnson on NCUIRE projects including “Cannibalism among black widow spiderlings (Latrodectus hesperus): The role of egg condition, relatedness and fluorescent paint marking.”

“We are now in the process of finishing the resulting manuscript for submission to a peer-reviewed journal,” Still said. “This is particularly exciting for me because I have been the lead on the project throughout, from data collection to data analysis and manuscript writing. It will be my first publication.”

Still echoed Ortiz’ sentiments about the value of NCUIRE.

“Since NCUIRE has been implemented, there has been an increase the number of students involved in research and an enhanced feeling of excitement about undergraduate research within the college,” Still said. “It is nice to know that professors and other students are interested in the research we conduct, and it also makes it easier to ask for advice or help when it is needed.”

Said Johnson, “NCUIRE support allowed an exceptional student like Meghan to go above and beyond the traditional research experience – actually conducting four distinct research projects during her tenure rather than the more traditional route of completing a single study as an undergraduate.”

“I have had more than one influential professor who helped me get to where I am today,” Still said. “They all offered their assistance outside of class and encouraged me to get involved and dabble in science. Taking their advice, I was able to find a lab that fit my interests. In addition, Dr. Johnson was very supportive and allowed me to pursue my own interests within the lab. With his guidance I was able to design and implement my own experiments – some failures and some successes – and really learned what it means to conduct scientific research.”

Still also found time in her busy schedule to volunteer in the community. “It is important to me to get the community involved and interested in science,” she said. “Most of my volunteer work has been with fourth through eighth grade students. My activities range from single-day classroom visits to month-long experimental workshops and special Arizona Science Center visitations.”

“Meghan is more than a straight-A student,” Johnson said. “She is an accomplished critical thinker, which makes me particularly excited for her future. I cannot wait to see what transformative questions Meghan answers in her career, and what pressing challenges for humanity she is a part of solving.”

NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which awarded fellowships to Ortiz and Still, helps ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity. The program supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based advanced degrees at accredited U.S. institutions.