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NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Recognizes 15 UK Students, Alums

By Whitney Hale

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 10, 2021) — The University of Kentucky Office of Nationally Competitive Awards has announced that 10 students and recent graduates have been selected to receive government-funded National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships. In addition, a UK doctoral student and four alumni received honorable mention recognition from the NSF. Among them were several College of Arts & Sciences students.

As part of the five-year fellowship, NSF Fellows receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees for a research-based master's or doctoral degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) field. In 2020, the NSF awarded approximately 2,000 fellowships from an applicant pool of over 13,000.

UK’s newest NSF fellows and the areas of research they will be pursuing are:

  • Rosemary Alden, a graduating electrical engineering senior from Nicholasville, Kentucky, who will pursue research in electrical and electronic engineering and her doctorate at UK.
  • Shelby Rae Buckman, a 2019 economicsmathematics and Lewis Honors College graduate from Henderson, Kentucky, who will pursue research in economics at Stanford University.
  • Matthew West Coile, a 2019 chemical engineering and Lewis Honors College graduate from Gaithersburg, Maryland, who will pursue research in chemical engineering at Northwestern University.
  • Benjamin Farmer, a 2019 biology and Lewis Honors College graduate from Lexington, who will pursue research in ecology at Louisiana State University.
  • Benton Girdler, a 2020 mathematics graduate from Lancaster, Kentucky, who will pursue research in artificial intelligence.
  • Donovin Denis Lewis, a graduating electrical engineering senior from Paducah, Kentucky, who will pursue research in electrical and electronic engineering and his doctorate at UK.
  • Jordan Ashlee McCray, a graduating geography master’s degree student from Alexandria, Virginia, who will pursue research in geography and her doctorate at UK;
  • Evan Thomas Miller, a pharmaceutical sciences doctoral student, from Worthington, Ohio, who will pursue research in biochemistry at UK.
  • Kristen Juranda Price, a 2019 mechanical engineering graduate from St. Charles, Missouri, who will pursue research in mechanical engineering and her doctorate at UK.
  • Ronald Justin Vogler, a graduating chemical engineering and Lewis Honors College senior from Mason, Ohio, who will pursue research in chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

Many of this year’s UK recipients will use their fellowship to take on several of the nation’s biggest topics of discussion including gentrification, climate change and remote work.

When asked how the fellowship would help her, McCray shared how the funding will further work on research that is very personal to her. “The NSF GRFP will allow me to develop as in-depth a research project as I am able, something that is very important to me given the personal nature of my research on Black churches in Alexandria, Virginia.”

McCray’s current research project combines the subfields of Black geographies, urban geographies, and critical geographies of religion to examine how leaders in Black churches in Alexandria perceived the process of gentrification in the city and subsequently, how the church responded to the disproportionate displacement of the city’s working class/poor and or African American communities. The scholar believes the fellowship will allow her to make more connections within the Black religious communities in her hometown and beyond.

For Farmer, the fellowship is all about advancing his work for the environment. “The NSF GRFP opens the door for me to pursue my dream graduate research project. I began my master's research in oceanography and coastal sciences at LSU in the fall of 2020, and now I have the funding to transform my work here into a Ph.D.

“Before arriving at LSU, I completed a wonderful undergraduate education in biology at UK. While Kentucky is quite landlocked, which makes it difficult to study the ocean, the foundations in biology and ecology I gained at UK were instrumental in preparing me for the challenges of graduate study. In terms of next steps, I now have the time and resources needed to dive further into my passion of researching coral disease epidemiology, while also integrating concepts of marine spatial ecology and fisheries management into a fully fledged dissertation. I am also very excited to contribute to climate change activism in my local community of Baton Rouge and contribute to a growing movement, which is challenging scientists to carefully consider their work within the lens of climate justice.”

And as the pandemic draws to an end, Buckman will use the NSF GRFP to learn more on how working remotely may impact the economy.

“This fellowship will allow me to focus on my research proposal where I will examine how firms and individuals relocate under the option of telework, and if this revitalizes local labor markets. These questions will help shape our understanding of how the labor market will change in coming years and can inform place-based policies designed to promote economic growth in a highly connected digital economy,” Buckman said.

Five others with UK ties, one current doctoral student and four alumni, received honorable mention recognition from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Those recognized with an honorable mention were:

  • Mariah Bezold, a 2020 chemical engineering and Lewis Honors College graduate from California, Kentucky, who is currently working on a doctorate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University;
  • Tara Hawkinson, a biochemistry doctoral student in the UK College of Medicine from Brighton, Michigan;
  • Hollyann Huber, a 2019 psychologycommunication and Lewis Honors College graduate from Georgetown, Kentucky, who is currently doing graduate work at Indiana University;
  • Alysia Kohlbrand, a 2019 chemistry and neuroscience graduate from Villa Hills, Kentucky, who is currently working on her doctorate in chemistry and biochemistry at University of California San Diego; and
  • Collin Laaker, a 2017 biology graduate from Lexington, who is currently doing graduate work at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The NSF GRFP is the country’s oldest graduate fellowship program directly supporting graduate students since 1952. GRFP is a critical program in NSF's overall strategy to develop a globally engaged workforce necessary to ensure the nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation. A hallmark of GRFP is its contribution to increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce, including geographic distribution, as well as the participation of women, underrepresented populations, persons with disabilities and veterans.

The Office of Nationally Competitive Awards assists current UK undergraduate and graduate students and recent alumni in applying for external scholarships and fellowships funded by sources (such as a nongovernment foundation or government agency) outside the university. These awards honor exceptional students across the nation. Students who are interested in these opportunities are encouraged to begin work with the office, housed in the Chellgren Center for Undergraduate Excellence, well in advance of the scholarship deadline. Staff is available for appointments to discuss opportunities for the 2021-2022 academic year and beyond.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.