Four Graduate Students Win NSF Fellowships
May 4, 2018 — Four graduate students from the Departments of Psychology, Biology, and Tumor Biology have been awarded prestigious graduate fellowships from the National Science Foundation.
Rob Cortes (C’18), Jewel Lipps, Shawn Rhoads, and Shannon White each received Graduate Research Fellowship awards, which provide $34,000 stipends and $12,000 cost-of-education allowances for the next three years. Cortes and Rhoads are enrolled in Ph.D. programs in psychology, Lipps is pursuing a Ph.D. in biology, and White is pursuing a Ph.D. in tumor biology.
An additional three Ph.D. students — Richard Dakar of the Department of Psychology, Shiva Hassanzadeh-Behbahani of the Department of Neuroscience, and Zachory Park of the Department of Biology — received honorable mentions from the NSF. Along with awardees, these students will receive access to the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), the “most advanced and robust virtual computing system used by scientists worldwide to share resources, data, and expertise.”
Like many incoming freshmen, Rob Cortes came to the Hilltop with his eyes on the Hill.
Hailing from small-town Texas, Cortes had planned to pursue a career in politics and government. He quickly realized that neither politics nor a law school path suited him, so he began to explore the College’s academic options more broadly. He was fascinated by the study of the mind in philosophy classes, but found that the discipline left him with more questions than answers.
Enter cognitive neuroscience.
“The summer after my sophomore year, I discovered cognitive neuroscience research and fell madly in love,” Cortes said. “I realized that it would allow me to ask the questions I was most interested in and gain evidence-based knowledge, and I couldn’t imagine anything cooler than that. I still can’t.”
Cortes dove into research as a junior, working alongside Professor Adam Green in the Lab for Relational Cognition. He became a standout researcher in the field of creative cognition, presenting work at conferences hosted by the American Psychological Association, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity. He became the first undergraduate student in the Green Lab to be certified to operate the fMRI scanner. He’s currently working on an NSF-funded study of concept development and reasoning in real-world high school STEM education.
“I love the research process — thinking of interesting questions, designing experiments to answer those questions, analyzing the results and gaining actual knowledge, then communicating it to the public by writing an article,” Cortes said. “It’s amazing, and there’s always more to do — the only limitation is your own curiosity.”
“Rob’s mixture of enthusiasm and pragmatism characterizes all of his contributions and makes him an extremely valuable member of our research team,” Green wrote of Cortes. “His zeal for research positively influenced the morale of research assistants, graduate students, and the lab as a whole. … Rob’s positivity has made our lab more productive and a better place to work.”
Green also supervises Rich Daker, who received an honorable mention.
“Consistent with Rich’s trait interest in real-world impacts, he is genuinely motivated by the idea that research he does in the laboratory will have impacts on the way students learn in the real world — even more so than other generally well-intentioned students,” Green wrote of Daker.
Cortes was accepted to the Department of Psychology’s Ph.D. program to continue his study alongside Green. At Green’s recommendation and with the help of Maria Snyder, Director of External Fellowships for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Cortes applied to the NSF’s graduate fellowship program last fall and was notified of his award this spring.
“The high expectations of all my peers and professors drove me to achieve things I never dreamed possible,” Cortes said. “The faculty at Georgetown really go the extra mile to foster the intellectual development of their students, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.”
Jewel Lipps is pursuing her Ph.D. in biology, specializing in the ecological impact of human action and the creation of sustainable environmental policy.
Prior to Georgetown, Lipps majored in environmental science at Southern Methodist University. After a stint at the Texas branch of the National Audubon Society, she began a two-year research term at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she gathered and synthesized the latest academic science to better inform on-the-ground ecological revitalization projects.
“Ultimately, I see myself as the scientist making discoveries about conserving biodiversity and restoring ecosystems in human-impacted areas,” Lipps said. “I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Biology because this path provides me the opportunity to learn advanced concepts while I work on my own research projects.”
While she notes that her alma mater also refers to its campus as “The Hilltop,” Lipps sought out a Georgetown Ph.D. program for more than just nickname familiarity.
“I chose Georgetown because its Department of Biology seems like inclusive community of people that support each other,” Lipps said. “It’s well connected to scientists in D.C., and it helps grad students consider non-academic science careers.”
Working alongside Professor Gina Wimp, Lipps now conducts research on the role of genetic diversity in the increasing number of “dieback” incidents — during which large patches of grass suddenly die — in salt marshes.
“The salt marsh ecosystem is one of the most economically important to US Atlantic coastal states, but it is dominated by one plant species — smooth cordgrass,” Lipps said. “It will be interesting to discover what role genetic diversity plays in the salt marsh ecosystem services.”
Shawn Rhoads began his journey to a graduate psychology program three years ago, while he was completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California. A double major in psychology and physics, he gained valuable experience working as a research assistant in a lab studying adolescent social emotion.
“I’m equally fascinated by how we process information about our social world and how to utilize exciting new research methods to capture such neural, psychological, and behavioral components,” Rhoads said.
Rhoads enrolled in Georgetown’s psychology Ph.D. program last fall. He works primarily with Professor Abigail Marsh, who specializes in a neuroscientific approach to altruistic behavior.
“I’m generally interested in conducting research on human social connection, empathy, altruism,” Rhoads said. “I study how the neural mechanisms that sub-serve social cognitive and emotional functioning can be leveraged across the lifespan to help both the self and others.
“His earning this award reflects the originality and and potential impact of the research he will be conducting, as well as his own stellar intellectual achievements, research background, and genuine and impressive commitment to community outreach through community service and advocacy,” Marsh said.
The first-year graduate student hadn’t given the NSF fellowship much thought prior to last year and was still on the fence about applying as a first-year — a second-year student’s resume would be more competitive, he thought. But at the encouragement of his colleagues and friends, he painstakingly refined his application and submitted it last fall.
“I devoted each day leading up to the deadline to fine-tuning my personal statement and research proposal to align with the mission of NSF,” Rhoads said. “I felt so relieved when I clicked the submit button in October. I couldn’t have done it without my peers’ and mentors’ support.”
While he received an award, Rhoads sees the application process as incredibly valuable even in the absence of a financial reward.
“Any prospective applicants should use the GRFP as a chance to reflect upon and highlight their potential as a researcher in STEM and potential to contribute to society,” Rhoads said. “Regardless of the outcome, it will have been an instrumental learning experience for future grant proposals, and the reviewers provide helpful feedback on applications.”
A Gaithersburg, Md. native and University of Maryland alumna, the naturally curious Shannon White has known for a long time that she would study how the body works. Personal experience led her to seek out a Ph.D. in tumor biology.
“I have always been interested in understanding how things work, and I wanted to apply that to disease research,” White said. “I gravitated towards cancer research because, like many people, cancer has touched my family. I wanted to contribute to the research behind providing more effective treatment strategies for patients.”
White chose Georgetown’s Ph.D. program in tumor biology for its commitment to supporting graduate students.
“I chose Georgetown because the faculty in the tumor biology department are extremely supportive and invested in their graduate students, she said. “I knew I would get the best training in this environment.”
She is currently working in Dr. Chunling Yi’s laboratory, where she studies the Hippo-YAP pathway, a frequently dysregulated pathway involved in a specific type of nervous system cancer. Her work on the topic has been published in the journal Developmental Cell.
“We focus on trying to understand the cellular processes in cancer cells that are governed by this signaling pathway.”
— Patrick Curran