Students, Alumni Win NSF Fellowships for Research

Five Davidson seniors and recent graduates have received Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct graduate studies in their fields of interest. They are Kelvin Bates '12, Beth Mundy '13, Eric Sawyer '14, Justin Strickland '14 and Damian White '13.

The NSF has been awarding these fellowships since 1952 to individuals early in their graduate careers, in recognition of their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science and engineering. The program is an important part of NSF's overall strategy to develop a globally engaged workforce that can ensure the nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation.

The NSF received more than 14,000 applications for support this year, and offered awards to 2,000 applicants from 442 different baccalaureate institutions. Fellows receive three years of support that includes a $32,000 annual stipend and a $12,000 annual allowance to the institution where the fellows enroll.


A native of Seattle, Kelvin Bates '12 double-majored in chemistry and economics at Davidson as a way to explore his interest in climate change. He recognized in the classroom and in summer internships at NOAA and NASA that both fields play a part in degradation of the atmosphere. He now is at California Institute of Technology studying geosciences, which brings together his interests in chemistry, economics and other disciplines.

He said, "Had the environmental studies major existed when I started at Davidson, that's probably what I would have done. But the courses in chemistry and economics still allowed me to explore the overlap while getting a solid grounding in both fields."

Bates is specifically studying why the Great Smoky Mountains are smoky. Trees give off chemicals to the atmosphere. When these chemicals combine with chemicals emitted by power plants and other human activity, the result is smog and all of its negative effects. Bates is trying to identify precisely the chemicals that cause smog, how they do so and what can be done about it. The NSF fellowship will give him more freedom to explore the various aspects of these questions.

Beth Mundy '13 was a chemistry major from Elizabethtown, North Carolina.

She inherited a love of science from her aunt and uncle, both of whom are biologists working in industry. Mundy began her Davidson career as a premedical student, with full intentions of supporting that track with a major in chemistry. But an experience conducting summer research with chemistry professors David Blauch and Durwin Striplin convinced her to devote herself fully to chemistry rather than prepare for a career in medicine. "None of our research that first summer actually worked out, but I loved every minute of it!" she recalled. "That's when I knew that research was my future."

She worked continually with Striplin throughout her Davidson career, and wrote an honors thesis with him based on her research in organometallic charge transfer complexes for applications in dye sensitized solar cells. She explained, "Basically, we were trying to see if small changes to the organic molecules we were trying to bind to zinc would have a major impact on how the overall complex would behave when exposed to light. We wanted to find a stable complex that absorbs visible light, which would have the advantage of being relatively easy to make and cheaper than currently available dyes."

The research also deepened her concern about the energy crisis, and her determination to help develop solar radiation as a viable alternative energy source. She was successful in applying during her senior year for a Fulbright Fellowship, which has led to her current work with Helge Lemmetyinen at Tampere University of Technology in Finland studying organic-based solar cells.

The NSF Fellowship will allow her to work toward earning a doctoral degree in solar chemistry at the University of Washington. "It certainly doesn't hurt to go into grad school with the experience of working abroad in a big lab with people of many different nationalities!" she said.

Mundy would eventually like to conduct research and teach in an academic setting.

Eric Sawyer '14, a biology major from St. Joseph, Mo., enrolled at Davidson after getting involved in high school in collaborative genomics research between Missouri Western State University (MWSU) and Davidson College. Sawyer spent the summer after his high school junior year working with MWSU Professor of Biology Todd Eckdahl, who was leading a MWSU team that was conducting long-distance collaborative research with a team led by Davidson professors Malcolm Campbell and Laurie Heyer.

"Working remotely with the Davidson team that summer, I got the impression that Davidson might be a great school to attend," Sawyer said. "I learned more about it, went to Decision Davidson, applied and ended up enrolling here!"

At Davidson Sawyer has worked one summer in Professor Campbell's lab, and did other summer work at Princeton and Stanford universities. On campus he has been working with Professor Karen Hales in a study of the genetics that govern mitochondrial activity in fruit flies. His NSF grant will allow him to enroll in a doctoral program in molecular and cell biology at the University of California-Berkeley in the fall.

Senior psychology and biology major Justin Strickland '14 will use his NSF fellowship to enroll in the University of Kentucky's doctoral program in experimental psychology next year. Strickland has received a total of three post-graduate awards or fellowships to pursue research on finding ways to end drug abuse through behavioral pharmacology, or the study of the behavioral effects of psychoactive drugs.

Strickland's interest in behavioral pharmacology began early in his Davidson career, when he took a class with Professor of Psychology Mark Smith called "Drugs & Behavior." He served as a research lab assistant for Smith, and came to enjoy his research as "a compelling hybrid of the behavioral side of psychology and the neuroscience, biomedical side."

As a junior at Davidson, Strickland received a Goldwater Scholarship, which funded his research on drug abuse at the University of Kentucky last summer. He worked in the lab of Bill Stoops '00, and plans to return to work with Stoops on his graduate studies.

In addition to his NSF fellowship, Strickland received three graduate awards from Kentucky. He received the university's Lipmann Award-a stipend of $10,000 over two years for a student pursuing research in substance abuse. He also received its Royster Award for Special Distinction, which is given to only one incoming graduate student across all departments. Finally, he received a multiyear fellowship that is awarded to two incoming students in each graduate department.

After completing his graduate studies, Strickland said he will likely remain in academia to begin post-doctoral research.

Strickland said Davidson prepared him well for his future in academic research. "My professors gave me real, graduate-level responsibilities and expected my best intellectual effort," he said. In addition, Davidson encouraged me to have a life outside of my research, and that was a big help in my success applying to grad school."

Damian White '13 has been awarded both a NSF fellowship and a Ford Foundation Fellowship. The two awards will support him for five years as he seeks to earn a doctoral degree at the University of Michigan, where he has been studying for the past year. White's award proposals stem from his research assistantship at Davidson with Professor of Sociology Gayle Kaufman on the changing shape of families. White wrote in his NSF proposal, "Because families increasingly span more than one household, they also necessitate the development of new measures to capture the intricacies of present-day family arrangements."

He notes that today's complex parenting configurations include fathers with potential obligations to more than one set of children residing inside or outside his household. White plans specifically to examine how resident and non-resident fathers navigate their parenting responsibilities. He asks, "What are the results of fathers simply being present in parenting, or fathers being truly involved in it?" He will seek to answer the questions (1) How are simple versus complex parenting configurations related to whether child support is paid? (2) How are simple versus complex parenting configurations related to father involvement?

White notes that the traditional representation of fathers being married and helping raise their own children can lead to development of faulty social policy. He concludes, "Uncovering the complex and nuanced ways that men experience fatherhood and behave as parents will provide us with a new analytical lens for crafting social policies related to child support, paternity leave and child wellbeing."