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Three students earn NSF graduate research fellowships

Three Northeastern University doctoral students—Allison Matzelle, Jennifer Morales, and Tanya Rogers—have been selected as 2014 recipients of the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

They are among 2,000 awardees from a pool of more than 14,000 applicants to the program, which aims to help ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions.

In addition to the awardees, six current Northeastern students received honorable mentions while another 14 recent alumni were also recognized.

The fellowship provides a three-year annual research stipend of $32,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees. Fellows also benefit from unique opportunities for international research and professional development.

Doctoral student Jennifer Morales will use her NSF graduate research fellowship to develop nanosensors that detect dopamine concentrations between neural cells. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Morales, for her part, will focus her fellowship research on developing nanosensors that can detect dopamine concentrations in the synapse between two neural cells. The work, which is part of a larger nanosensor development program in pharmaceutical sciences associate professor Heather Clark’s lab, aims to improve our understanding of how individual neurons communicate. Currently, brain imaging studies rely on system level analyses, looking at the entire organ as a whole. This work, she noted, would afford a completely new way of examining, imaging, and probing human mental processes and could have implications for mental health treatment as well.

Allison Matzelle will use her fellowship to study how environmental and predation stress influence community dynamics of intertidal and marine species. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Both Matzelle and Rogers are working out of Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, where they are studying how marine organisms respond to climate change. Matzelle, a member of environmental science and public policy professor Brian Helmuth’s lab, is using energy budget models to understand the flow of energy through intertidal organisms. She is using this approach to look at how the coupled effects of environmental and predation stress may influence community dynamics. So far most of her work has focused on intertidal invertebrates, such as mussels and clams, but she will be expanding her scope to include deep-water species that reside on coral reefs during a two-week research endeavor off the coast of Miami this summer.

Tanya Rogers will use her fellowship to study the ecological consequences of the blue crab’s range expansion due to climate change. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Rogers is interested in a different marine species—the Atlantic blue crab. As a member of environmental sciences assistant professor David Kimbro’s lab, she is researching the ecological consequences of an expanding blue crab habitat in coastal New England. The blue crab is an important predator in a region whose northern range currently stops at Cape Cod. But as temperatures rise, the blue crab’s range is expected to expand as far north as the Gulf of Maine. Rogers will investigate what this expansion will mean both for the blue crab as well as the region’s other species, such as the invasive European green crab.

The talented researchers credit early exposure to research as setting them on their paths to success. All three worked in their respective labs before matriculating to Northeastern as graduate students. The fellowship, they say, provides an opportunity to focus their graduate careers on what inspires them most: their research.

“The opportunities that the NSF fellowship will provide will allow me to become a research scientist or professor, it’s going to allow me to do more than I ever could have done otherwise,” Morales said. “And I hope eventually that I will become someone that my community will be proud of and someone who will inspire the next generation of women in science.”