By Adrienne Nettles
The road Rebecca Weber took to graduate study at the University of North Texas included three years of undergraduate research, marriage, motherhood, a bachelor's degree -- and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. She is earning her doctorate in chemistry at UNT with the help of the prestigious fellowship, which rewards students with a three-year stipend for graduate research and education.
And she's not alone. Jennifer Williams, Jessica Rimsza and Jody Huddleston also are among UNT graduate students who have earned the competitive fellowships. They represent a growing number of women bringing about innovations in science and technology, the environment and human health.
It was the research of Angela Wilson, Regents Professor of chemistry and 2012 fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with UNT's nationally known Center for Advanced Scientific Computing and Modeling, that drew Weber to UNT, and it was Wilson who encouraged her to apply for the fellowship.
"I have met few other students who conduct meaningful research, maintain outstanding grades, stay active in science organizations and manage to be a mother of young children all at the same time," Wilson says.
Weber is helping Wilson's group develop theory in the fast-growing field of computational chemistry, which uses computers to model molecules, molecular properties and chemical reactions -- and saves time and money compared to traditional approaches.
"In searching for a new industrial catalyst, for example, a computational chemist can screen many, many more possibilities, narrowing down potential compounds to a handful, rather than having to investigate hundreds," Weber says.
She is working on a method known as MR-ccCA that allows researchers to more accurately model large molecules. She plans to pursue a university teaching career that will allow her to conduct further research and be a mentor.
"Dr. Wilson pushes her students to stay active in research and the academic community, keeping our names out there so that we have better chances at careers," Weber says. "Her support has been great."
For Williams, who is working on a master's degree in electrical engineering, the NSF fellowship made it possible to pursue interests in environmental monitoring systems, sustainable design, and outreach in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. She earned her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at UNT and says she's had the chance to use that knowledge in environmental settings through her work with Miguel Acevedo, Regents Professor of electrical engineering.
One of those opportunities included consulting with the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area on the reintroduction of bobwhite quail to the area.
"We brainstormed on a project to keep the quail cool in the Texas heat and discussed the use of remote monitoring systems to provide data on its effectiveness," Williams says.
The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program offers the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind and is designed to make students life-long leaders who can contribute significantly to scientific innovation and teaching. Past fellows include Nobel Prize winners and leaders in government and business from top universities.
Open to students in their first year of pursuing their master's and doctoral degrees in science, social science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the fellowship provides a $30,000 stipend annually for three years and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees. Fellows also have opportunities for international research and professional development.
The program encourages applications from women and members of under-represented ethnic minorities, to ensure a diversity of individuals "crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation's technological infrastructure and national security as well as contributing to the economic well-being of society at large."
James Duban, director of UNT's Office for Nationally Competitive Scholarships, says competition for the fellowship is rigorous and only students with intensive undergraduate research backgrounds are viable applicants.
"More often than not, these are students who have made significant, publishable contributions to various research teams," Duban says. "Winners, therefore, bring added distinction to themselves, to their undergraduate research mentors and to their universities."
Acevedo is the project leader of the Texas Environmental Observatory at UNT, which uses weather stations throughout the region to provide web-based environmental data for the public. In a project to expand the observatory,Williams is researching its monitoring equipment, purpose, functionality and communication links as she works to develop her graduate thesis.
And as a summer research assistant for UNT's NSF-funded Research Experiences for Teachers in Sensor Networks, she helps high school teachers in the STEM fields conduct research on campus.
Her interests helped make her a good fit for the fellowship.
"Jennifer wants to apply her engineering skills to environmental problems and is determined to devote her academic career to help society and improve STEM education," Acevedo says. "That combination is highly appreciated by funding agencies."
Williams says her UNT undergraduate advisors and professors helped her to gain the research experience needed to qualify for the fellowship.
"Dr. Acevedo and many other professors have been excellent role models every step of the way," she says.
"I want to make a difference locally and globally, and now I have the opportunity to do that."
Research focused on improving technology gave Rimsza an edge in earning one of the prestigious fellowships. She's using the award to study the use of organosilicate glasses for separating the electronic charges that run through computer chips, with a goal of making the chips faster, smaller and more reliable.
She is pursuing her research as a doctoral student in the laboratory of Jincheng Du, associate professor of materials science and engineering, where she is investigating the etching of these materials at the atomic level using advanced computer simulations.
Understanding how the materials are affected by etching, which is used in the manufacturing of chips, will help to ensure that they function effectively in electronics after processing, Rimsza says.
"Using computer simulation and modeling to solve problems in fundamental materials research is significant in keeping U.S. technology competitive globally," Du says. "I think Jessica's focus and valuable research experiences made her a competitive candidate for the fellowship."
Rimsza found her way to UNT thanks to a recommendation from her undergraduate advisor at the University of Arizona. She developed liquids for semiconductor cleaning there in the chemistry lab of Rene Corrales and her research was published in the Journal of Computational and Theoretical Chemistry.
Corrales -- who had worked with Du at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory -- encouraged Rimsza to continue her research at UNT and apply for the NSF fellowship.
"He mentioned that UNT had a new materials science and engineering Ph.D. program and that Dr. Du would be great as my student advisor," Rimsza says, adding that her first year at UNT has been rewarding not only because of supportive faculty.
"UNT has put a lot of money and effort into research facilities, which makes the academic experience here even more fulfilling."
Huddleston came to UNT to study jazz, but she found her niche in a science lab. She earned her bachelor's degree in geography from UNT as an Honors College student and a scholar in the Ronald E. McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program.
The federally funded program provides first-generation and underrepresented students with research opportunities and faculty mentors to encourage them to pursue doctoral degrees and college teaching careers.
She credits the McNair program along with James Duban, director of UNT's Office for Nationally Competitive Scholarships, and faculty mentor Joseph Oppong, professor of geography, for providing the training and help she needed to earn the NSF fellowship.
Huddleston's undergraduate research included mapping HIV/AIDS late testers in Texas, individuals who developed full AIDS symptoms within a year of being identified as HIV positive. Today, she is using her fellowship to earn a doctorate in environmental science.
Her new project examines tick-borne disease in Texas and what factors -- such as climate, land cover and habitat fragmentation -- lead to areas where disease-causing bacteria or viruses among ticks are more prevalent.
"The goal is to use resources like satellite imagery, population data and aggregated disease data to map areas in Texas that can be considered of higher risk to humans," she says.
Oppong says the research will provide much-needed information for county and regional health departments for planning appropriate interventions to prevent and control disease.
"Jody's work is exceptional," he says. "She is a huge inspiration and mentor for other students."
After completing her doctorate, Huddleston plans to help future students gain a passion for research.
"I was able to start doing research early in my college career," she says, "because there were professors and advisors at UNT who showed me I didn't need to wait until graduate school to become involved."
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