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Six recent Emory College alumni awarded NSF Graduate Fellowships

Clara Perez (left) and Katya Bobrek are among six recent Emory College graduates to earn prestigious graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation. Photo by Becky Stein.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded coveted Graduate Research Fellowships to six recent alumni of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, including one who graduated earlier this month.

Emory’s recipients of the nation’s oldest continuous STEM investment include Katya Bobrek, who graduated with high honors May 13 with a degree in anthropology and human biology; Caroline Holmes 17C, physics (now at Princeton University); Will Milligan 15Ox 18C, evolutionary biology (now at Columbia University); P. Michael Newberry 08Ox 10C, ecology (now at the University of Georgia); Clara Perez 14Ox 17C, sociology (at Emory); and Daniel Salgueiro 18C, chemistry (now at the University of Wisconsin).

They are among more than 2,000 high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers to win support for their graduate research training. The fellowship provides three $34,000 annual stipends and $12,000 cost-of-education allowances to the fellows’ graduate institutions, as well as programs for professional development and international research.

Unique among those recognized this year, Bobrek and Perez are both social scientists whose innovative research overlaps with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. 

“The recognition of students and alumni like Clara and Katya is especially exciting, and speaks to Emory’s commitment to interdisciplinary inquiry and support for undergraduate research,” says Megan Friddle, Emory College’s director of national scholarships and fellowships. “In addition to recognizing intellectual merit and research potential, the NSF GRFP also emphasizes broader societal impact though outreach, teaching and mentorship; I look forward to seeing these scholars bring their innovative work into the classroom and into their communities.”

Bobrek, a Robert W. Woodruff Scholar, will apply her fellowship in pursuit of a PhD in human genetics. Perez, a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, will use the fellowship to pursue a PhD in sociology. 

“Emory is so invested in interdisciplinary education that I had a beautiful blend of all these different things that tie together all my interests,” Bobrek says.

Combining anthropology with genomics 

Bobrek pursued her interest in anthropology as a bridge to genomics, all to answer questions about the evolution of different human populations. She pursued several computer science courses, working as a teaching assistant in some, to deepen the skills needed for such research.

Bobrek’s undergraduate research included analyzing countries’ compliance with WHO food-fortification standards at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and conducting genomic analysis in search of sex bias and mating patterns among people living on the islands of Cape Verde as a summer researcher at UC Berkeley. 

She will use the fellowship to pursue a PhD in human genetics. Specifically, she plans to develop a new computational method for the study of ancient DNA, then apply it to answer questions about genetic effects of the agricultural revolution in Europe and Central America.

The work will require using genomic methods as well as applying cultural understanding, Bobrek says. 

“Biological evolution is not the last word. Cultural evolution is important to having a broad understanding of who we are,” she says. “It’s very early days for this kind of research, and I’m very excited to join at this stage.” 

Studying climate change and social inequality

Perez’s research has long focused on climate change from the lens of its political and social dimensions. 

She began researching the connections between the environment and social systems as an undergraduate at Oxford College, studying food access in Georgia.

 Perez continued such environmental research for her honors thesis. For that two-year study, she conducted semi-structured interviews with working-class people of color in Georgia to reveal how they built their understanding around climate change and ideology.

Later, as a summer researcher at UC Berkeley, she developed data skills to study quantitatively how legacies of colonialism relate to climate vulnerability.

“Climate change is not a natural phenomenon. It’s been created by societies that are dominated by race, gender and wealth inequality,” Perez says. “The people paying the price for environmental degradation are not the ones who benefited from the damage.” 

Perez will expand that research in her doctoral program, looking specifically at greenhouse gas emissions and race. The work will require her to develop a state-by-state racial equality index, examining factors such as disparities in education, health care and housing. 

The first investigation will be to compare the indexes to each state’s emissions levels, looking for the relationship between racial inequality and a state’s share of national greenhouse gas emissions.

Perez will test the hypothesis that states with higher levels of racial inequality have higher levels of emissions. She also hopes to investigate historical questions about how unequal societies produce environmental harm.

“There is nothing worse than releasing dire report after dire report on climate change,” Perez says. "There is no magic technology that will save us from the climate crisis because climate change is fundamentally about social inequality. We have to reimagine what more egalitarian societies can look like to begin to address climate change in an effective way."

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