National Science Foundation awards graduate research fellowships to outstanding Emory students, recent grads

By April Hunt | Emory Report | April 20, 2021

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The National Science Foundation has awarded coveted Graduate Research Fellowships to several Emory students and recent graduates, including Emory College seniors (left to right) Kim Sharp, Charlotte Wang and Taylor Dover.

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The National Science Foundation recently awarded prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships to three seniors in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, 12 recent Emory College alumni and nine PhD students in Emory’s Laney Graduate School.

The nation’s oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the NSF award comes with a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, a $12,000 stipend to fellows’ graduate institutions and access to programs for professional development and international research. The highly competitive award was offered to 2,074 students this year, out of more than 20,000 applicants.

The Emory College recipients include graduating seniors Taylor Dover, Kim Sharp and Charlotte Wang and the following alumni:

  • Brandon Chen 19C, biology (now at the University of Michigan)
  • Raveena Chhibber 18C, neuroscience and behavioral biology (now postbaccalaureate researcher in the lab of Emory biology professor Sam Sober)
  • Lucas Encarnacion-Rivera 20C, neuroscience and behavioral biology (now at Stanford University);
  • Angel Gonzalez-Valero 19C, chemistry (now at University of California, Berkeley)
  • Kenny Igarza, 19C, neuroscience and behavioral biology and international studies (now at Princeton University)
  • Fredrick Leon 19C, chemistry (now at University of California, San Francisco)
  • Olivia Meisner 16C, neuroscience and behavioral biology (now at Yale University)
  • Adelaide Minerva, 16C, neuroscience and behavioral biology (now at Princeton University)
  • David Perlin 18C, psychology (now at the University of Florida)
  • Jordan Pincus 19C, neuroscience and behavioral biology (now postbaccalaureate research assistant at Marcus Autism Center, starting at Georgia State University in the fall)
  • Chayla Vazquez 19C, neuroscience and behavioral biology (now at Washington University School of Medicine)
  • Caleb Ziems 20C, computer science and mathematics (now at Georgia Institute of Technology)

“It’s incredibly exciting to see the impressive research conducted by Emory undergraduates recognized in this way,” says Megan Friddle, director of Emory College’s national scholarships and fellowships program. 

Nine doctoral students in the Laney Graduate School received the NSF fellowship:

  • Retta El Sayed (biomedical engineering)
  • Thomas Hsiao (biostatistics)
  • Kendra Ireland (chemistry)
  • Stacey Jones (chemistry)
  • Abigail Julian (computer science and informatics)
  • Yemko Pryor (genetics and molecular biology)
  • Julia Raquel Tanquary (biochemistry, cell biology and developmental biology)
  • Kyle Anthony Thomas (biomedical engineering)
  • Sophie Yount (molecular and systems pharmacology)

Learn more about the undergraduate recipients:

Taylor Dover

Dover, a chemistry major and math minor, has worked in chemistry professor Frank E. McDonald’s synthetic organic chemistry lab since his second year on campus. His project is part of a collaborative effort with ophthalmology researchers in the Emory University School of Medicine, developing therapeutic compounds for treating blast injuries to the retina.

He earned a Goldwater Scholarship last year for his work to isolate the mirror image forms — known as chiral biomolecules for their right-handedness and left-handedness — of a compound that their collaborators previously discovered.

When the pandemic sent him home to rural Alabama last spring, Dover shifted to researching the potential of fluorinated alcohol solvents to facilitate reactions of otherwise weakly reactive materials. Dover was first author on a review article, his first published work in collaboration with McDonald, that appeared in the open-access journal Arkivoc in February.

He is back in the lab this spring. There, he is completing his honors thesis research, linking some of the article’s themes to the challenge of teasing out the chiral molecules that may pave the way for new drug development.

“Every challenge presents a new frame of inquiry,” Dover says. “COVID-19 has really illustrated that point, as well as the importance of being flexible.”

Dover, a first-generation college student, is applying that flexibility as he weighs where he will pursue doctoral studies in chemistry. His previous teaching experience, as a learning assistant in several chemistry courses and as a mentor in STEM Pathways and the 1915 Scholars Program, has already convinced him to become a chemistry professor.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the professors I’ve had, and how much help that network and support is,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to work on what I’m interested in, the core chemistry that can lead to therapeutics, that I want to share it.”

Kim Sharp

Sharp, also a chemistry and math double major and 2020 Goldwater Scholar, had been experimenting with new ways to form carbon-nitrogen and similar chemical bonds at the heart of drug development when the pandemic shut her out of Simon Blakely’s organic chemistry lab last spring.

Because she had learned computational skills to analyze similar reactions in a NSF-funded International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) in South Korea in 2019, the shift was fairly simple. Sharp joined on a project in Blakey’s lab intended to use machine learning to design macrocyclic molecules with appealing structural motifs for challenging pharmaceutical applications.

“I’ve always wanted to do something I could clearly see was helpful, and chemistry is that wonderful intersection of theory and application that lets me do that,” Sharp says. “It’s fabulously cool to get to make new things from scratch.”

Sharp graduated with highest honors in December and spent this spring looking at graduate schools that will expand her computational and traditional chemistry skills as she continues to research challenging reactivity and synthesis questions.

“It’s easier to get excited about the research if you’re in a collaborative environment with happy people,” Sharp says of working in Blakey’s lab and getting guidance from Cora MacBeth, a former chemistry instructor who is now an assistant dean in the College.

“I have a world of nice things to say about Dr. Blakey, Dr. MacBeth and all of the mentors who took me into that world early, allowing me to become a decent scientist from the clueless freshman I was,” she adds.

Charlotte Wang

Wang’s research journey began as a standout in her introductory course with Sarah Fankhauser, an assistant professor of biology at Oxford College.

Fankhauser recruited Wang, who had no experience with research, to join her in studying how farming techniques affected the soil microbiome at the Oxford Organic Farm. The project expanded to include other students over time, resulting in a 2020 paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“She took such initiative, it was like having a first-year or second-year grad student on my team,” Fankhauser says. “I could not be more proud of her development as a scientist.”

Wang’s development continued with a chance conference dinner with immunologists. The interaction made her think of the immune-boosting herbal soups from traditional Chinese medicine she grew up with as a child and inspired her to pursue a research position in the field.

Through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, Wang landed a summer position in advanced targeted gene editing at the University of California San Francisco after graduating from Oxford in 2019. She spent the summer learning techniques to use CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technologies to screen for immunodeficiencies.

When she moved to the Atlanta campus, Wang sought out more immunology work. She conducted surveillance work on a subtype of T cells for a semester in Jacob Kohlmeier’s lab in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in Emory School of Medicine.

With the pandemic keeping her from lab work, she began working on a computational project that became an honors thesis under the guidance of Rustom Antia, the Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of biology. Her project modeling the auto-reactivity of T cells confirmed her passion for understanding how the immune system works or doesn’t.

Wang will pursue her PhD in biomedical sciences at UCSF in the fall.

“I never imagined myself in a scientific field until my mentors brought me in and lifted me up,” Wang says. “Oxford and Emory gave me the freedom to think, to let me develop my identity as a researcher. It feels very powerful to belong to that community.”