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National Fellowships and Scholar Programs

  • Sarah Pye sitting next to a tree. Sarah is one of UofSC's NSF GRFP scholars.

Seven UofSC Students & Alums Awarded NSF GRF

Posted on: May 1, 2020
By Maddox McKibben-Greene

This year, six current University of South Carolina students and recent alumni and one incoming graduate student were awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP), and an additional four students were named Honorable Mentions. The financial support from the NSF will allow them to focus their time and energy on their classes and research in a wide range of fields, including marine science, geology and biochemistry.

Current South Carolina senior Sarah Beth Pye, incoming graduate student Maina Handmaker, current graduate student Annie Klyce and UofSC alumni Akilah Alwan, Casey Brayton, Richard Brokaw and Leon Tran have been announced as 2020 NSF GRFP Fellows. Four UofSC alumnae – Alexis Bantle, Lindsey Guerin, Emily Hardin and Krystyn Kibler – were selected for Honorable Mentions in this prestigious graduate fellowship competition.

Each year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) provides funding through the graduate research fellowships program (GRFP) to promising graduating seniors, recent graduates and graduate students early in their careers.

Sarah Beth Pye, a senior at UofSC graduating with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology and French, has conducted research in Dr. Maksymilian Chruszcz’s lab focusing on drug research to combat antibiotic-resistant pathogens. In the fall, Pye will attend Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, to begin her Ph.D. studies in molecular microbiology and microbial pathogenesis. In addition to this prestigious award, Pye received a Magellan Scholar Research Grant in 2018 and was named a Goldwater Scholar in 2019.

“It means a lot to me to have the added support as I start my graduate studies, since I will be moving to a new city and getting settled there,” Pye says. “It is also exciting to have the recognition associated with this award ,as so many significant scientific contributors before me have been awarded the NSF GRFP.”

In addition to her research, Pye plays the double bass in the university orchestra and competes as a member of the Charles Towne Independent Winter Guard. She has also served as a resident mentor (RM) for three years, assisting first-year students in the Honors Residence hall and students living on the Historic Horseshoe. 

Annie Klyce, a graduate of Appalachian State University with a bachelor’s degree in geology, will continue her study in the field and pursue a Ph.D. at UofSC. Klyce’s current research focuses on training spatial skills in undergraduate students to see it this has any effect on their confidence and success in future STEM courses. As a female first-generation college student in STEM, one of her biggest goals through her research is to increase accessibility in STEM fields.

“While applying for the GRF, I realized how much I love what I'm doing. I think it's incredibly common for us to not think we're where we belong or doing exactly what we should be,” Klyce says. “But throughout this application process, I realized that I was excited about every component of my project. I'm so grateful to have found and to be a part of a field that I'm so passionate about.”

Nationally, there were approximately 13,000 applicants for this year’s NSF GRFP competition. There were 2,076 applicants selected as NSF Graduate Research Fellows and 1,827 applicants who received honorable mentions.

Among this year’s NSF GRFP winners is Maina Handmaker, an incoming UofSC graduate student. Handmaker attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where she graduated in 2011 with degrees in environmental studies as visual art. Throughout her application process, Handmaker worked closely with Dr. Nathan Senner in the Department of Biological Sciences and will come to South Carolina to study whimbrel, a species of migratory shorebird.

“I will be tracking whimbrel movements during and after their spring stopover on the coast of South Carolina using miniature GPS tags. This will help us investigate how individuals select foraging and roosting sites and better understand how those choices influence their entire annual cycle,” Handmaker says. 

Akilah Alwan, a second-time NSF GRFP applicant, was surprised at how much her application improved in a year.

“While I had some idea of what I wanted to do as an undergrad, I wasn't heavily rooted in the theoretical frameworks of my research,” Alwan says. “That was the only negative feedback I got in my first round of reviews, so I took the year between applications to ground myself in the theory, and it paid off.”

Alwan’s current research focuses on personal narratives from black geoscientists about how they persist in a predominantly white field, a project Alwan was inspired to take on from her experience as the first African American female graduate student in the geosciences department at Auburn University. 

“Being a GRFP Scholar means opportunity to me. Because there is such a large under-representation of black geoscientists, my research requires me to travel to meet people,” Alwan says. “I now have the opportunity to do some in depth in person interviews, which I could not afford without the GRFP. It also means that I no longer have to worry about providing for myself and can focus solely on my graduate studies.” 

Alwan and Handmaker share a passion for art, and when not conducting research, they can be found being creative and devoting time to their creative pursuits. Handmaker creates one-of-a-kind projects using her letterpress, which is 108 years old and powered by foot pedal. Alwan enjoys sewing and embroidering, and even has built her own business out of her art.

“My craft room is my happy place where I go to escape from all the pressures of the day,” Alwan says.

Casey Brayton, a 2019 UofSC graduate who studied marine science, is a current AmeriCorps volunteer residing in Anchorage, Alaska, working as a climate resilience coordinator with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Center for Environmentally Threatened Communities. Through the NSF GRFP, Brayton will study marine ecosystem changes and glacial isostatic adjustment for Greenland to provide better estimates for coastal changes as the Greenland ice sheet (GrIS) melts.  Her research is part of the NSF Navigating the New Arctic’s Greenland Rising project at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“I want to incorporate traditional knowledge and community knowledge into my geoscience research as a career goal. That is partially why I chose to study Greenland over Antarctica,” Brayton says. “Natives and other people who have lived in an area for years observe more of the local environment than a researcher who comes in for a few weeks every year to do fieldwork, and that is valuable information for understanding how environments are changing with climate change.”

Brayton has previously won several fellowships, including the Truman and Goldwater awards in 2018 as well Udall and Hollings awards in 2017.

Richard Brokaw, another graduate of UofSC’s marine science program, will pursue his master’s degree in the field at UofSC as well. His previous research has focused on the Gulf of Mexico loop current.

“I have studied how this loop current can redistribute Mississippi River waters throughout the Gulf of Mexico and export them to the Atlantic Ocean through connection with the Gulf Stream. I have also investigated eddies (rotating pockets of currents) in the Gulf of Mexico, looking at their surface properties and vertical structure throughout the water column,” Brokaw says.

Like most of this year’s NSF GRFP fellows, Brokaw enjoys being outside. He has also played on UofSC’s ultimate frisbee team. 

Leon Tran, a UofSC alum who is pursuing his master’s degree in marine biology at the University of Hawaii, is conducting research concerning tropical fish and how environmental changes such as climate change have affected them. 

“The unprecedented rate of climate change is projected to have important consequences for life in the oceans, of which fish are no exception,” Tran says. “My research looks at the sensitivity of fish to changes in temperature and oxygen level when they're preparing to reproduce since this may make them particularly sensitive to such environmental changes.”

In addition to the NSF GRFP, Tran was named a NOAA Hollings Scholar in 2016.  He credits much of his success to the support of mentor Dr. Jennifer Pournelle, of UofSC’s School of the Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

This year’s NSF GRFP winners share a feeling of excitement and honor, as being chosen for this award affirms their research pursuits, hard work and highly competitive academic profiles.

“Receiving the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship almost feels too good to be true,” Handmaker says. “It feels like the transition between dreaming of becoming a biologist to actually beginning to work as one.”

These students were supported by National Fellowships and Scholar Programs, along with the support and guidance from a committee of faculty chaired by Michael Matthews (chemical engineering) and including Reginald Bain (music), Carol Boggs (earth and ocean sciences), Leigh D’Amico (education) Sharon DeWitte (anthropology), Jochen Lauterbach (chemical engineering), Howie Scher (earth and ocean sciences), Todd Shaw (political science), Jeff Twiss (biology and neuroscience) and Hans-Conrad zur Loye (chemistry and biochemistry).

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