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Whitman alumnae awarded NSF research fellowships

Two Whitman graduates have earned awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further their work in the field of ecology, with an emphasis on conservation and sustainability.  

Nevé Baker '15 and Hanna Kahl '11 are among only 2,000 applicants selected for the NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) out of a pool of 13,000. Awardees went through a rigorous peer review process and represent a wide range of scientific disciplines. The GRFP provides three years of financial support to students seeking research-based master's and doctoral degrees within a five-year period, including a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 educational allowance.

According to Director of Fellowships and Grants Keith Raether, the GRFP is "the flagship of fellowship programs for grad students in STEM. Recipients are the country's future Nobel laureates and members of the National Academy of Sciences."

Baker in the Sitka Sound with a biopsy crossbow, a scientific instrument used to analyze genetic samples of whale skin and blubber with minimal invasion. Photo courtesy of Nevé Baker.Baker, a biology and environmental studies major based in Sitka, Alaska, plans to start her Ph.D. in wildlife conservation genomics this fall at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She currently works as a research technician on the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project, a collaborative study aimed at reducing the incidence of sperm whales feasting on sablefish caught by commercial longline fisheries, a practice known as depredation.

"My Whitman education was hugely valuable in preparing me for graduate school and I'm sure it contributed to my success in receiving an NSF fellowship," Baker said. "My experience on Semester in the West helped improve my critical thinking and depth of understanding of environmental and conservation issues, and undertaking an entire research project for my senior thesisfrom field work to lab analysis to writingreally affirmed my desire to do scientific research as a career and gave me the confidence to pursue a Ph.D."

Baker also credited her success to "great professors that both challenged and supported me."  

Kahl, who majored in biology at Whitman, will use her award to finish her master's of science in entomology degree at the University of Maryland before pursuing a doctorate at another university. Her research focuses on sustainable pest management strategies, such as planting strips of red clover between rows of crops to impede the movement of crop pests, and sharing her findings with farmers. For her NSF application, she proposed a series of experiments testing how neighboring plants can influence the arthropod herbivore community of focal plants.

Kahl with insect specimens in a display case. Photo courtesy of Hanna Kahl."Whitman definitely influenced my path," she said. "I often worked up to 30 hours per week at Whitman while taking the full load of classes. That taught me how to manage my time and gave me valuable work experience, which allowed me to define what I wanted to do."

While studying abroad in India, Kahl conducted a project on dairy development that involved visiting local farms, sparking her interest in agriculture.

She added, "taking a broad range of courses helped broaden my knowledge base, which has helped me perform well in my rather multidisciplinary position."

The oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the GRFP was adopted in 1952 by the NSF to foster global leadership in research and innovation. Since then, it has funded over 50,000 recipients, 42 of whom have become Nobel laureates and 450 of whom have become National Science Foundation members. More than 70 percent complete their doctorates within 11 years.

"Nevé's and Hanna's achievements speak not only to their current brilliant trajectory but also to their thorough, rigorous grounding in knowledge and research during their time at Whitman," said Raether.  

Two additional Whitman alumni received honorable mentions this year: biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular biology major Chris Saxby '11 and biology and environmental studies major Taylor White '13.

Published on Jul 7, 2017
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