Two Whitman grads selected for National Science Foundation fellowships

June 11, 2009

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded pre-doctoral fellowships to two recent Whitman graduates — Laura Sanchez ’07 and Chantal Stieber ’08.

Both women were chemistry majors at Whitman and now are pursuing graduate studies in chemistry. Sanchez recently finished her second year at UC Santa Cruz where she hopes her research will lead to a potential therapy for a tropical disease, leishmaniasis.

Stieber, currently teaching English in China, will start at Cornell University in the fall and expects to begin a research project that in part “works towards reducing the amount of toxic materials used in chemistry,” according to her proposal.

“There are relatively few NSF predoctoral fellowships given out each year, so it is quite prestigious to receive one,” said Timothy E. Machonkin, assistant professor of chemistry at Whitman College.

“For a small school like Whitman to have two alums get NSF grants in the same year and in the same field of study seems quite unusual,” he said. “As I understand, it has also become increasingly rare for students to receive them when applying prior to starting their graduate work, as Chantal has done.

Stieber said she has had several scientists tell her several things about Whitman chemistry students: That Whitman students are “more prepared for research than others,” and that, “We’ve been exposed to more scientific literature, reading and writing than most, and that some of our chemistry classes are at the level of graduate school classes.”

William Hahn, program director of the NSF’s Division of Graduate Education, said that for the 2009 fellowships there were 1,236 awardees picked from 9,013 applicants.

Hahn said that “… from historical data, I can say that Whitman has been a relatively successful school in preparing students for the sciences.” He noted that the NSF also selected two Whitman graduates in 2007.

 Stieber, who grew up in San Jose, Calif., will get a $30,000 stipend and a $10,500 education allowance per year for three years, plus a $1,000 one-time travel allowance.

For her research project, she will investigate a method for using iron as a
catalyst with low toxicity for fundamental chemical reactions.

“Basically, I want to help chemical processes become more sustainable
and environmentally friendly,” she said.

Stieber, who graduated from Whitman cum laude with honors in her major, said Whitman’s professors are all “extremely dedicated to students” and that because of her chemistry professors she is well-prepared for graduate school.

Sanchez, originally from Antioch, Calif., is receiving the same $30,000 package as Stieber. “It’s expected that I will make progress towards the completion of my graduate degree, which means a lot of research,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez, who says she “felt fully prepared to do graduate school once I got here from Whitman,” is currently working on a research project that is of great importance to her —developing drug leads for the treatment of a particular disease.

“Leishmaniasis is one of many neglected tropical diseases that are quickly coming into the academic research spotlight because profit-driven drug discovery companies are uninterested in developing therapeutics for diseases that affect third-world populations,” she said.

- Virginia Grantier