Ten of the eighteen graduate students at UC Riverside who received Graduate Research Fellowships (GRFs) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) this year are in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. The highly competitive fellowships are awarded to individuals early in their graduate careers based on their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science.
“The graduate community is extremely proud of the accomplishments of these graduate students who are at the beginning of their research careers,” said Joseph Childers, the dean of the Graduate Division at UC Riverside. “The fact that they have been awarded these prestigious scholarships in a national competition speaks to the outstanding quality of the students themselves as well as to the dedication of the faculty who train them.”
The NSF awards the GRFs directly to graduate students selected through a national competition. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period ($32,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution) for graduate study that is in a field within NSF’s mission and leads to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree.
The ten CNAS students who won the GRFs this year are:
Osinachi Ajoku (geosciences), Javier Fajardo (chemistry), Oscar Gonzalez (neurosciences), Eric Robert Lucien Gordon(entomology), Denise Jackson (microbiology), Brooke Elizabeth Pickett (ecology), Michael Ryan Pina (organismal biology), Edwin Sabas Preciado (materials science), Sarah Marie Reinhard (neuroscience), Kevin Fernando Welzel (entomology).
“Our department was very pleased to learn that two first-year graduate students in Assistant Professor Emma Aronson’s group — Denise Jackson in Microbiology and Brooke Pickett in Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology — were awarded the NSF fellowships,” said Katherine Borkovich, the chair of the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology. “In the case of Ms. Jackson, this is also the first NSF award to a microbiology student since the program came out of moratorium a few years ago.”
A glimpse at some of the graduate research projects
Ajoku, a second-year master’s degree student, works with Robert Allen, assistant professor in the Department of Earth Sciences. He is exploring future potential changes to the Earth’s hydrological cycle and tropical belt width — important research impacting many subtropical regions. He will enter a Ph.D. program in the fall at Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
Fajardo is a fifth-year chemistry and physics double major. He will start a Ph.D. program in chemistry this fall. Assistant Professor Vincent Lavallo is his faculty mentor. Fajardo focuses on designing new molecules and transition metal complexes that exhibit novel reactivity and are capable of catalyzing important reactions. Homogeneous transition metal catalysts are key to several important industrial and pharmaceutical reactions.
Gonzales, a second-year student doing research with Maxim Bazhenov, professor of cell biology and neuroscience, is exploring how pathological synchronization arises in brain networks following traumatic brain injury. He has helped develop a computer model to study which properties of the network lead to hyper-synchronization.
Gordon is in his second year of graduate studies. He works with Christiane Weirauch, associate professor of entomology, on exploring diversity and function of understudied bacterial symbionts of a group of true bugs including plant bugs and lace bugs. The study will further our understanding of symbioses between insects and bacteria.
Pickett, a first-year Ph. D. student, works with Emma Aronson, assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology. The growth of invasive grasses can cause abiotic and biotic legacy effects (the total impact of a species that persists long after the species is removed) in the soil. Pickett’s research will determine if these legacy effects of invasive grasses inhibit the growth of natives in post-invasion soil as compared to native soil — research that can have transformative impacts on the field of restoration ecology.
Pina is a first year graduate student in the Botany and Plant Sciences Department, and works with Milt McGiffen, a Cooperative Extension crops specialist and plant physiologist. His research focuses on elucidating the selective forces shaping the evolution of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that form symbioses with legume plants. Legume crops provide a major portion of caloric intake for humans and livestock, as well as high levels of oils for emerging biofuels. Pina’s research has beneficial potential for farmers that grow food crops, fodder crops, and could be useful also in the improvement of legume biofuel crops.
Preciado, a second-year materials science and engineering Ph.D. student, works with Ludwig Bartels, professor of chemistry. He is developing single layer transition metal dichalcogenide films — semiconductor material has the ultimate thinness as well as improved optical properties over silicon — that will be used in the next generation of microchips. The goal is to incorporate elements into the film to allow for more sensitive tunability that can improve computing and reduce its energy cost.
In his second year, Welzel works with Dong-Hwan Choe, assistant professor of entomology, on Argentine ants. Spraying of chemical insecticides is the most common control method, but this method leads to non-target effects and ground water contamination. Welzel is developing a poison-free insecticide bait.