3 ASU juniors awarded Barrett Global Explorers Grant for study abroad research

Headshot of Acacia Wastchak.

Acacia Wastchak, a junior international trade major, has been awarded the Barrett Global Explorers Grant to study local efforts to preserve Sassarese and Oltramontano, the native languages of Sardinia and Corsica. Photo courtesy Acacia Wastchak

The Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement has announced three winners of the Barrett Global Explorers Grant, which provides up to $7,500 in funding to support international research projects for undergraduates in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. The 2023 recipients are Acacia Wastchak, who will be traveling to Sardinia and Corsica, and Gabriella Cerna and Priyati Sharma, who will travel together to Germany and France.

The Barrett Global Explorers Grant, or BGEG, is offered to third-year Barrett students who are preparing to write their honors thesis, a project that is the culmination of each Barrett student’s honors experience and academic dedication. Applicants must propose a travel itinerary that will take them to at least two different countries and the project must include in-person research abroad.

“This award is truly special because of the breadth and diversity of the proposals that we receive,” said Kyle Mox, associate dean for national scholarships. “I am always astounded by the creativity and ambition of our applicants.”

For her project, “The State of Minority Languages Today on the Islands of Sardinia and Corsica,” Wastchak, who majors in international trade at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, will study local efforts to preserve Sassarese and Oltramontano, the native languages of Sardinia and Corsica, respectively. She will travel to cultural centers across the islands and work with professors at local universities who research these endangered languages.

“My interest stems from a desire to fill the gap in knowledge related to the current state of preservation of the languages, especially in the English-speaking world,” Wastchak said. “One of my missions is to raise awareness of these languages, as they are widely studied by academics in France and Italy but nowhere else really.”

Wastchak, who also speaks Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese, has a longstanding interest in language study. She is the founder of Fluent Fridays, an ASU club that provides a space for those learning a foreign language to practice speaking it. She also plays the alto saxophone in the ASU Sun Devil Marching Band.

She will begin the last year of her bachelor’s degree and the first year of her master’s in this fall and use her research to construct the main body of her honors thesis. “I will be translating my thesis into both French and Italian,” she said. “My research is largely for the benefit of those populations.”

Cerna and Sharma designed a project together and will share the BGEG prize.

“This year is only the second time in its history that the grant has been awarded jointly,” Mox said. “We try to keep the limitations on proposals to a minimum, because we want to encourage innovation and creativity.”

Cerna and Sharma’s project, “Engineering New Bio-Based Carbon Capture Solutions to Bridge the Global Food Cap,” will take them to the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Germany and Sorbonne University in France.

Their work aims to use synthetic biology to address increasing agricultural productivity and decreasing global food scarcity by engineering plants to conduct photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert light energy into biomass, more efficiently.

“Our goal is to reduce photorespiration, an energetically wasteful photosynthetic side reaction, in plants through synthetic biology,” Sharma said. “This will ultimately lead to higher crop yields and will hopefully address the issue of global food scarcity in the long run.”

Cerna and Sharma became interested in synthetic biology in plants while serving as co-captains of ASU’s 2022 international iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team. Cerna is double-majoring in biochemistry and microbiology, while Sharma is majoring in biomedical engineering. Both of them plan to pursue PhDs in their respective fields.

“We are passionate about pursuing this project because of its potential to revolutionize the way in which we approach environmental biotechnologies,” Cerna said. “By developing this new-to-nature technology, we will provide the scientific community with valuable insight into the ever-expanding limits of synthetic biology and how it may be used to combat similar issues in the coming future.”

Beyond their education and research, Cerna and Sharma are excited to explore France and Germany, visit museums and attractions, and try the local cuisine.

With awards of up to $7,500, the BGEG is open to Barrett students who will have at least one semester of undergraduate study following their summer of study abroad. The extensive application process includes an initial three-page proposal, followed by an expanded eight-page proposal — and a 10-minute presentation — for finalists.

“Our selection committees look for feasibility, timeliness and academic merit in the proposals,” Mox said. “They also keep in mind the Barrett mission and ASU Charter — we want to support projects that will provide value to the communities that we serve while also engaging the larger world.”

The next cycle for the BGEG will open in November 2023. Students who are interested in applying should visit the advisement website to subscribe to email updates and view a calendar of upcoming information sessions.

Story by Cera Monson, an ASU student who works in the Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement.

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