Stony Brook graduate student researchers in the areas of applied math, anthropological sciences, chemistry, ecology and evolution, and neuroscience, have won the prestigious 2018 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP). In addition, three other students were chosen as honorable mentions.
The NSF GRFP was established in 1952 to help develop and boost diversity of the country’s science and engineering research workforce by supporting graduate students who pursue research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in NSF-support STEM disciplines.
The 2018 fellowship winners include Christopher Giuliano, who graduated this year with a Bachelor’s in Chemistry and Applied Mathematics and Statistics, and is also a Goldwater Scholar and finalist for the Hertz Fellowship — both highly competitive and coveted awards; Amalia Napoli, a PhD student in Neuroscience; David Vanier, a PhD student in the Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences who entered Stony Brook as one of a handful of Turner Fellows selected by the Center for Inclusive Education; and Janet Vu, a PhD student in Ecology and Evolution.
The three Honorable Mentions are Michael D’Agati, who graduated this year with a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering; and Stephen Tomasetti and Kristofer Tuftedal, both PhD students in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
“I take enormous pride in Stony Brook’s recognition by the NSF,” said Jen Green, External Scholarships and Fellowships Advisor. “When I attend national conferences of fellowships advisors, my colleagues always ask how we do it and my answer is always the same: It is the perfect combination of brilliant, hard-working students from diverse backgrounds and dedicated mentors who foster their intellectual curiosity and innovative research. One integral mentor has been Dr. Anne McElroy from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences who worked with our applicants to prepare the most competitive materials possible.”
“It is a great honor to receive the GRFP, which gives me a really great opportunity to start graduate school with my own funding source, and this will give me a lot of freedom in choosing what specific area of biology I want to study,” said Giuliano, who also received a 2017 Goldwater Scholarship.
At Stony Brook, Giuliano works in Associate Professor Steven Glynn’s lab investigating the mechanism of AAA+ proteases in mitochondria. These proteins are responsible for clearing out damaged proteins, a process that is necessary for keeping cells healthy. However, very little is known about how these proteins actually work at a molecular level. At Cold Spring Harbor Lab, he works in Jason Sheltzer’s lab using a new gene editing tool called CRISPR to investigate the mechanism of action of cancer drugs. Their work has shown that some of the tools researchers have used in the past to study cancer are prone to off-target effects, leading to incorrect conclusions about which genes are important for cancer growth. They are using CRISPR to better identify true drug targets in cancer and understand how some anti-cancer drugs currently being tested in clinical trials actually work.
“For prospective GRFP applicants, I would suggest that they share their project proposals with as many people as possible,” he added. “All of my mentors provided me with great advice as I was developing my proposal, and their input made my application much better.”
“Receiving the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship provides me with additional funding, thereby alleviating some of the financial burdens that might otherwise compromise my time and energy in pursuing my PhD,” she said. “Having this fellowship on my resume will be tremendously helpful as I move forward into a professional career; it demonstrates a track record of success in securing grant funds, and it symbolizes the confidence and value that the scientific community has placed in my ideas and my ability to contribute to the existing body of scientific knowledge in a profound way.”
Napoli graduated from SBU last year with a Master of Science in Physiology and Biophysics. A 2017 recipient of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Career Development Grant, she is researching adult neurogenesis in ectothermic models with research mentor Dr. Alice Powers. Ectotherms, like reptiles, display neurogenesis throughout adult life and are capable of harnessing this process to repair significant injury to the central nervous system and effect restoration of function. She is trying to determine the mechanisms by which reptiles perform this seemingly miraculous feat with the hope of recreating the process in the mammalian brain, thereby allowing the CNS to repair itself after spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, and stroke, and to reverse neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases.
“My advice to prospective GRFP applicants is to think outside the box, or even better, think outside the room the box is in,” she stressed. “It is by reading and learning about everything you can, in all scientific disciplines and subspecialties, that you can begin to develop new ideas and insights that might never have been brought to awareness were it not for all the boxless rooms you explored. It is from this thirst for broad knowledge and the hunger to make unique connections that true innovation is born. This is what your research proposals should embody.”
“It is only through the financial support and exemption from teaching duties provided by the GRFP that I am able to work in Germany with the largest primate brain collection in the world,” he said. “Thanks to the GRFP, I have already fostered new projects and collaborations with European colleagues, and in the future, I plan to use the NSF’s GRIP program to further hone my data science skills through an internship.” Vanier’s research mentor is Dr. Jeroen B. Smaers.
Vanier believes that the seat of our humanity — our language, culture, tool use, etc. — is the brain. He uses the brains of our closest living relatives, other primates, and statistical models to walk backwards on the evolutionary tree to see how human intelligence evolved. In particular, he focuses on the evolution of the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in memory and mental representations of time and space.
“My advice to prospective GRFP applicants is to start early and revise your application as many times as humanly possible,” he suggests. “Treat the GRFP application itself as valuable practice for grant writing, and remember that how you convey the import of your research is every bit as important as the scientific rigor of your experiments.”
“The GRFP provides me with tremendous flexibility to conduct international fieldwork, meet with collaborators, and pursue the training I need to complete my work and better disseminate it to a broad audience,” she said.
Vu initially came to SBU as a Graduate Council Fellowship recipient. She is investigating where the Central American agouti moves seeds around the Costa Rican rainforest. The goal of this work is to make reforestation plans more efficient by leveraging the agouti’s natural ability to regenerate the forest. Her research mentor is Dr. H. Resit Akçakaya.
“The GRFP provides you with an amazing opportunity to design your dream dissertation,” she advises. “Don’t be afraid to push your boundaries, get creative, and solicit advice from your mentors and peers. Sometimes it is scary to put your ideas out into the world, but you’ll never know if it’s genius or how to improve it if you keep it to yourself.”
Students interested in applying for NSF Graduate Research Fellowships should contact Jen Green, Jennifer.Green@stonybrook.edu.