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Graduate students earn National Science Foundation fellowships

May 03, 2007

Graduate students from life sciences, anthropology and mechanical engineering at ASU are among the select applicants chosen nationwide to receive National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research fellowships. Dani Moore, Zachary Stahlschmidt, Phillip Wheat and Ashley Evans will receive $30,000 for three years, plus an additional $11,000 in educational and travel allowances, to pursue their research dreams.

Evans' fellowship pursuits will actually take her back in time. As a graduate student in the School of Human Evolution & Social Change (SHESC), in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Evans has a background in civil engineering, and her fellowship research “Geotechnical Analysis of Identity” incorporates anthropological, archaeological and soil engineering methods; data about human remains (bioarchaeology) and burial goods; and information about styles of construction of earthworks and ceremonial centers. Her fellowship will allow her to investigate the alliance-making strategies among prehistoric peoples.

Evans says that introducing civil engineering concepts with bioarchaeological methods and theory will “enhance scientific and technical understanding of the ways in which the built environment was integral to past communities.”

Community structure is also at the heart of Moore's proposed NSF research, but with a much smaller social model. A graduate student in the School of Life Sciences, Moore works with assistant professor Juergen Liebig to study how worker ants in newly founded and forming ant colonies “know” that they should opt out of the gene pool in favor of a solitary queen, a process she calls “voluntary reproductive restraint.” With her fellowship she will be able to delve into a question that could revise understanding about reproductive altruism in social insects such as ants, bees and termites.

“Most studies of ant behavior focus on mature colonies and cannot tell us about the selective pressures that shape ant behavior when the colony is young, small and vulnerable,” says Moore.

Stahlschmidt's creature of choice is more solitary and somewhat less vulnerable, the python. Coming to ASU from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana with a degree in Animal Sciences, being part of “Team Denardo” – the research group led by Life Sciences' assistant professor and ASU veterinarian, Dale Denardo – has opened up his herpetological horizons. Stahlschmidt will look at how competing environmental factors, such as water loss, gas exchange and temperature, affect egg brooding behavior (when the python coils tightly around a clutch of eggs).

Stahlschmidt says he credits “an outstanding core of physiologists in the School of Life Sciences” for his fellowship success. “In particular, I feel that the impact of my advisor, Dale, has been immeasurable.” In fact, three of the five graduate students who have worked with Denardo have been awarded NSF fellowships.

NSF developed the fellowship program to bolster educational opportunities, diversity and vitality in science, engineering, math and technology. The highly competitive program hands out 1,000 awards annually to graduate students early in their research careers.

Engineering innovative technologies is what drives Wheat's research aspirations, that and going into space. Working his way toward that eventual career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Wheat will complete a graduate degree in proteomics with Jonathon Posner, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and head of the Microfluidics Laboratory in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. His NSF fellowship supports his desire to create new technologies relating the mechanical properties of cells to disease. He says his goal is to “develop a microfluidic method to separate and identify label-free proteins in minutes rather than hours or days,” a process that could revolutionize disease biomarker detection.

Advances in microfluidics, or bioarchaeology, and understanding about reproductive altruism, and being the better python “mom” notwithstanding, NSF investment in the next generation puts all these young ASU scientists one step closer to their reach for the stars.