NSF awards students for biology, psychology research

By Cindy Weiss, CLAS Today

Four CLAS students have demonstrated their potential for significant achievements in science, winning very competitive National Science Foundation fellowships in support of their PhD work.

Andrew Stewart, a graduate student in psychology; Sarah Sheftic, a graduate student in molecular and cell biology; Grace DiRenzo, a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB); and Kevin Burgio, a graduate student in EEB, will receive $30,000 a year for three years as they seek their PhDs.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are awarded in the early stages of graduate study to students whose research and achievements demonstrate the potential for significant achievement. Former fellows have gone on to become leaders in their fields and Nobel laureates, according to the NSF.

A fifth UConn student, Adam Cywar in the School of Engineering (electrical and electronic engineering) also won an NSF graduate research fellowship.

Andrew Stewart (BS, Colorado State University ’09), whose thesis adviser is psychology professor Felicia Pratto, is studying social change – how ideologies and intergroup behaviors interact to improve, maintain, or worsen social inequalities. In one case, he is studying how racist hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan can actually motivate other people to challenge racism. He also does research on gender relations, such as how dominating, powerful masculine types can increase violence and stress. He has also worked with Pratto on an exploration of how bumper stickers with sociopolitical messages can be used as a measure of ideology.

Sarah Ryan, whose adviser is Andrei Alexandrescu, associate professor of molecular and cell biology (MCB), studies the changes that a protein undergoes to become functional and to become potentially toxic. She uses biophysical techniques such as NMR and electronmicroscopy to study atomic-level structure in order to understand the processes that govern protein folding. Ryan earned her B.S. from CLAS in 2009 and is from Stratford, CT. She began her undergraduate career in biomedical engineering, later switching to an MCB major.

Grace DiRenzo, a CLAS senior majoring in EEB, will graduate in May and will attend the University of Maryland for her PhD degree, where she will study herpetology. As an undergraduate, her research adviser has been Andrew Bush, assistant professor of EEB, a paleobiologist who is also associated with the Center for Integrative Geosciences in CLAS. DiRenzo has conducted undergraduate research in a paleontology laboratory, studying late Devonian extinction and ecological gradients through time. Her PhD research in herpetology will relate to the decline in amphibian populations and amphibians’ adverse reactions to changes in the environment. The assumption has been that amphibians are most sensitive to change at the embryo stage, but recent research has shown evidence of sensitivity to change at other life stages, too, and she will investigate that.

Kevin Burgio, CLAS ’10, whose adviser is Margaret Rubega, associate professor of EEB, is a first-year PhD student who won a Goldwater Scholarship in 2009 as an undergraduate. He studies the behavior of Monk Parakeets, which build large nests on utility poles in urban areas, in some cases interrupting electrical service. They are descendants of Monk Parakeets that were imported from South America as pets in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Escaped birds developed into large populations in places such as Fairfield County and Chicago. The birds have also been reported in Quebec, Montreal, and Boston. Burgio has tested some devices for discouraging the birds from nesting on utility poles, and he is studying how their behavior, physiology and diet allow them to live in cold climates. The birds are also prevalent in Florida. Burgio redirected his career plans from dentistry into biology research after serving in the Air Force for six years, where he was trained in combat medicine and as a dental hygienist. As an undergraduate in CLAS, he was awarded an NSF fellowship for summer research in the REU program.

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