Breaking New Ground: NSF Fellowship Recipients in Science and Engineering

Spring 2016 | Benjamin Morris

NSFFor many graduate students, securing a fellowship means more than just financing their education and facilitating research time. Increasingly, a key part of an early researcher’s career, a fellowship also opens the doors to mentorships, travel, and new avenues for dissemination of research.

While all fellowships stand to benefit their recipients, few are as sought-after as the Graduate Research Fellowship administered by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency funded directly by Congress, and one of the largest grant funding agencies for scientific research in the country. Awarded for five years of graduate work, of which three are fully funded by the agency, NSF fellowships are among the most prestigious a graduate researcher can obtain.

This year, the School of Science and Engineering at Tulane is proud to host three current NSF recipients: Katherine Elfer, Sara Lipshutz, and Luke Browne, with two more, Liz Kimbrough and Zoe Diaz-Martin, beginning next fall. If receiving a fellowship is a marker of potential, then the agency’s aim was true: even as students, these researchers are breaking new ground in their fields.

Katherine Elfer, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering, began her career researching nanosystems engineering while still an undergraduate at Louisiana Tech. Fascinated by the intersection of nanomaterials and optics, after arriving at Tulane she joined the lab of Dr. Quincy Brown, and began designing new kinds of microscopes to aid physicians studying abnormal tissue. “There’s no good method of examining tissue on a microscopic level over a fast timeframe,” Elfer says. “Our goal is to increase the efficiency of microscopy in a clinical setting.”

Already her work has shown promise: one of the instruments she has helped design can image the entire surface of a prostate tumor, about the size of a baseball, in under an hour. For pathologists looking for unusual margins to section and biopsy, that’s literally operating at warp speed.

“Kate has spearheaded the development of a new tissue preparation technique which could enable a whole new way of performing histopathology on samples near the patient¹s bedside,” says Brown. “Her work addresses some fundamental problems that have stymied the field of ex vivo tissue microscopy, and I anticipate that it will have important and long-lasting impact on the field.”

Across campus, Sara Lipshutz, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), is using her fellowship to further her research into the relationship between genetic hybridization and inter-species mating competition in jacanas, Central American shorebirds. Lipshutz, whose first encounter with these species came through fieldwork with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, is now exploring how genetic differences influence variation in aggressive behavior between the species, and has recruited and mentored students from both Tulane and the University of Panama to aid in her research.

Prior to receiving the fellowship, Lipshutz had the framework of idea for her project, but she credits her peers and her advisor, Dr. Elizabeth Derryberry, with helping her turn it into a solid research proposal. “I had the questions in mind,” she says, “but they weren’t in the form of testable hypotheses.”

Today, however, Lipshutz’ findings stand to illuminate a critical, yet poorly-understood, aspect of her shorebirds’ lives. “Sara’s research includes diverse and substantive broader impacts,” Derryberry says, “and she is already engaged in public outreach and education, particularly with women and under-represented communities in science. [Her] results will be interesting to a wide audience, making her work publishable in high impact journals.”

Finally, Luke Browne, a fifth-year Ph.D. student also in EEB, is using his NSF fellowship to explore reproductive behavior in Central America as well—this time, however, with trees, not the species who make them their home. Browne’s research, undertaken in the lab of Dr. Jordan Karubian, explores the diversity and abundance of nearly two dozen species of palm trees in Ecuador, examining the effect of forest fragmentation on those species’ capacities and strategies for reproduction. Fragmentation, Browne explains, is a common practice in this region, with farmers staggering their land between open and forested sections. Understanding the nature of biodiversity in this area requires asking what species exist in these fragments, and if and how those species are interbreeding with other plants—questions that can only be answered on site.

Fortunately, Browne says, the NSF has enabled him to undertake fieldwork precisely when it was required, given the differences in climate and season between North and South America. “You have fewer obligations tying you to Tulane’s campus,” Browne says, who received his fellowship the second time he applied. “The NSF fellowship allows students the flexibility to do research and collect data any time of year for long periods of time, especially if their research site is outside of New Orleans.”

That freedom of movement—in Browne’s case, the opportunity to stay in Ecuador for months at a time—is critical to the success of his research. And, like the trees he has studied, it has borne its own fruit. Karubian comments: “Luke has already made significant contributions to a number of long-standing questions in tropical ecology, including seed dispersal and seedling survival; the effects of forest fragmentation on diversity and gene flow; and plant-animal interactions. Along with his scientific work, he has made meaningful impacts on conservation in the biodiversity hotspot where his research takes place.”

Understandably, competition for fellowships is fierce. Last year, the NSF received approximately 16,000 applications from senior-level undergraduates and graduate students, with only about 2,000 fellowships awarded. Key to a successful application is a strong, focused research proposal. “Publications and research experience are important, but most of all the panels want to know you can ask the right questions,” Elfer says.

But all three recipients agree, the challenge of putting together the application is absolutely worth the time and the trouble. Moreover, they encourage any current students interested in pursuing the NSF or other funding opportunities to take the grantwriting course that Dr. Karubian regularly teaches in the School. For those choosing to apply, the only question that remains is, what new ground do they want to break next?

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