Students Earn NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Julianna Renzi will use the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to continue her graduate studies focusing on how humans impact the ecology of marine ecosystems, with a particular focus on coral reefs and salt marshes.

Julianna Renzi will use the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to continue her graduate studies focusing on how humans impact the ecology of marine ecosystems, with a particular focus on coral reefs and salt marshes.

Twenty-one students associated with the University of Arizona recently were rewarded with one of the most prestigious graduate fellowships in the nation by the National Science Foundation.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, supporting the development of the nation's STEM workforce. Launched in 1952 shortly after Congress established the NSF, the program represents the nation's oldest continuous investment in the STEM workforce.

Awardees receive three years of financial support for graduate studies that lead to a research-based master's or doctoral degree in a STEM field within a five-year period, including a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution, along with other benefits.

"We are incredibly proud of our awardees," said Andrew Carnie, dean of the UA Graduate College. "This is an extremely competitive fellowship. Receiving the award is a recognition of these students' dedication to their discipline, their intellectual ability and their commitment to using their knowledge to advance society. It also is a reflection of the hard work of our faculty in supporting our undergraduate and new graduate students." 

"To support U.S. leadership and innovation in science and engineering, we must recognize and nurture talent from all of our nation's communities," said Jim Lewis, NSF acting assistant director for education and human resources. "I am pleased that again this year, the competition has selected talented students from all economic backgrounds and all demographic categories. In addition, NSF worked successfully to accommodate students from U.S. islands devastated by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, so that they could still compete for a fellowship."

The new awardees were selected from more than 12,000 applicants and come from all 50 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. The group of 2,000 awardees is diverse, including 1,156 women, 461 individuals from underrepresented minority groups, 75 persons with disabilities, 27 veterans and 780 who have not yet enrolled in graduate school. The awardees did their undergraduate studies at more than 440 institutions.

Some of the current UA students who were awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship include:

Ethan Burnett, who is finishing his master's degree in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and will continue his Ph.D. studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His research has been in spaceflight mechanics and astrodynamics with a focus on spacecraft formation flying. He plans to continue work on autonomous space vehicle navigation and control.

Noelle Collins, a senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering. She will begin her graduate studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she will work in professor John Bower's optoelectronics group on quantum dot photonic integrated circuits.

Lily Engel, a senior majoring in biosystems engineering and mathematics. She plans to begin her graduate studies in environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, where she will focus on mathematical modeling of coastal systems and how the systems are changing with climate change.

Alyssa Lyn Fortier, a senior majoring in mathematics and molecular and cellular biology. She currently works in Ryan Gutenkunst's computational biology lab, where she investigates whether two populations of the same species have different evolutionary patterns. She plans to attend Stanford University's biology Ph.D. program in the fall.

Nancy Freitas, who graduated from the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the UA. She is headed to UC Berkeley this fall to pursue a master's and Ph.D. in energy and resources. She will partner with researchers in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to conduct biogeochemical research on the cycling of greenhouse gases in the Arctic.

Gitanjali Gnanadesikan, a graduate student in the School of Anthropology. Her research focuses on cognitive evolution and social behavior, especially in the context of domestication. By comparing domestic dogs, wolves and a population of selectively bred service dogs, she works to shed light on domestication and similar processes.

Alison Harrington, a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She uses genome-scale data and infection trials to understand how ubiquitous plant-symbiotic fungi with diverse ways of interacting with plants evolve over different timescales.

Jordan Jensen, currently a master's student in geology. He will use his fellowship to continue his research at Utah State University. His research utilizes a special branch of geochemistry known as thermochronology, which allows geoscientists to connect thermal processes (the heating or cooling of rocks in the Earth's crust) to geologic processes (movement on a fault, mountain-building, etc.) by analyzing tiny minerals in packages of rock.

Colin Lynch, a current senior majoring in neuroscience. He studies the cognitive mechanisms that underlie the division of labor in social insects. He performs experiments on ants to uncover what cognitive rules they use to coordinate their behavior and then constructs theoretical models to understand the consequences of several potential rules.

Alexander Prescott, a graduate student in the Department of Geosciences. He researches the response of terrestrial sediment transport to climate change. Numerical modeling is at the heart of his work, which in many cases involves the use of high-resolution and spatially distributed datasets.

Julianna Renzi, who will use the award to begin a doctoral program at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. She will study how humans impact the ecology of marine ecosystems, with a particular focus on coral reefs and salt marshes.

Sasha Safonova, whose research aims to answer the question, "What drives the accelerating expansion of the universe?" She is currently in the UA's Department of Physics and will begin her graduate studies through the Fulbright program at Durham University in the U.K., where she will work on creating a simulation of galaxies and dark matter in a virtual universe. She plans to continue this work at Yale University.

Aubrey Wank, a second-year graduate student in the clinical psychology doctoral program. She researches autobiographical memory changes in normal cognitive aging. In the course of her research, she will work to acquire skills in neuroimaging such as structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging, to better understand the neural mechanisms underlying age-related changes in the search for specific autobiographical memories.

Julia Yang, a first-year master's student in the Department of Geography. Her research is situated at the nexus of plant ecophysiology, biogeochemistry and spatial science. She investigates how forest ecosystems interact with a changing global environment across a range of spatial scales, focusing on the semi-arid forest on Mount Bigelow in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Additionally, 10 UA students received honorable mentions from the NSF.

The majority of this year's awardees participated in application services provided by the UA Graduate College, which supplies a range of services to support applicants to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program, including workshops and feedback on essay drafts.

Students interested in applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program in the fall can register for application support through the UA Graduate College over the summer. For more information, visit


Resources for the Media