Exceptional Honor

by Ashley Berthelot

Two LSU Students, Two Recent Grads Receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

The National Science Foundation, or NSF, is one of the country's top funding sources for scientific research at the university level. Founded in 1950, part of the independent federal agency's mission has been to promote the progress of science and advance the health and prosperity of the United States.

In support of this mission, the organization each year recognizes outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees with an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, or GRF. Recently, two LSU students and two recent alumni have received the prestigious award, an exceptional honor for both the students, their faculty mentors and the university itself.

LSU’s recent NSF GRF recipients include Kathleen Brannen, a senior in geology and geophysics and biological sciences and native of New Iberia, La.; Precious Cantu, a recent graduate in electrical and computer engineering and native of Houston, Texas; Taylor Morris, a senior in mechanical engineering and Baton Rouge native; and Brandon Pitts, a recent graduate in industrial engineering and Baton Rouge native.

An NSF GRF offers three years of support, including a $30,000 annual stipend, a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance along with international research and professional development opportunities and TeraGrid Supercomputer access. 

“The College of Engineering is proud of our students and the national recognition this honor bestows upon them,” said Dean of the College of Engineering Richard Koubek. “They are shining examples of what it means to be an LSU Engineer and reflect well on the whole engineering student body.”

Currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Utah, Cantu is a former LSU McNair Scholar. Under the direction of McNair faculty mentor Professor Martin Feldman of the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Cantu gained extensive experience as an undergraduate researcher, including an internship with the prestigious NanoJapan Institute for Materials Research at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan. She also presented her research at a number of conferences, including the International Conference on Electron, Ion and Photon Beam Technology and Nanofabrication.

“I felt like I won the lottery. It really was a boost of confidence,” said Cantu in reaction to receiving the award. “It [applying] was a lot of work. The workshops and one-on-one help from the McNair Program were so important in preparing me to complete the application.”

For more information about the LSU McNair Program, visit www.lsu.edu/mcnair.

Brannen, Pitts and Taylor are LA-STEM research scholars. The Louisiana Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or LA-STEM, Research Scholars Program is funded by the NSF and the Louisiana Board of Regents and managed by the Office of Strategic Initiatives at LSU.

“The NSF Graduate Fellowships are among the most prestigious in this country,” said Boyd Professor and Vice Chancellor of Strategic Initiatives Isiah M. Warner. “Students who win this award can literally select the graduate program in which they want to matriculate. LSU is honored to have four of our undergraduates win this very prestigious award. In addition, the Office of Strategic Initiatives is delighted to play a small part in this honor through its implementation and operation of the LA-STEM Research Scholars program.”

Morris has been accepted to MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern University, but is currently undecided on where he will attend.  He is interested in obtaining a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with an emphasis on product design.  The NSF Fellowship is just one of the many prestigious awards Morris has secured, along with the NASA MUST Scholar award, the Raytheon Scholarship, the Albert P. Levy Scholarship, the DuPont Scholarship and the Pegues Scholarship awards.

“LA-STEM has supported and encouraged me to pursue personally enriching activities outside of my curriculum, which I think ultimately set me apart from other candidates in the competition,” he said. “The experiences I have gained by participating in LA-STEM have adequately prepared me to compete academically on the national level, while also allowing and encouraging me to serve my surrounding community.”

Morris has been working under Brygg Ullmer in the Center for Computation and Technology, and is interested in developing an idea generation tool, known as an Educational Design Model, to help toy designers incorporate educational value into their products.

Pitts will attend the University of Michigan, where he will pursue a Ph.D. in industrial engineering focused on human factors engineering, or cognitive ergonomics. He wants his research to be applicable to the aviation, automobile, space, military and healthcare domains. 

“My proposal stated that I plan to develop a model that can be used to assist the driving ability of older adults,” said Pitts. “This is important because the U.S. Census Bureau projects that there will be a population increase in for this age group (65 years and older) within the next decade.”

As an undergraduate, Pitts conducted research with Laura Ikuma, assistant professor in construction management and industrial engineering in the LSU Human Factors and Ergonomic Laboratory. 

Brannen, a senior in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and the Department of Biological Sciences in LSU’s College of Science, has been accepted to Princeton, University of Washington, University of Illinois at Chicago, Florida International University and the University of Tennessee, but has also yet to decide which school she will attend for her graduate studies.

During her tenure at LSU, Brannen’s research experiences and exemplary work ethic garnered her numerous unique opportunities and honors.  She spent a semester abroad conducting research in Antarctica, and has also done extensive fieldwork in Colorado Springs, Wyoming, Kentucky and Slovenia. Brannen was named Outstanding Student Researcher by the Department of Geology and Geophysics in 2010, and in 2011 won the Outstanding Student [oral] Presentation at the International Conference on Subterranean Biology in 2010. She is interested in working towards a Ph.D. in geosciences, studying karst hydrology groundwater ecosystems. Her research project summary submitted to NSF was titled “Microbial cycling of carbon in the deep crustal biosphere.”

Brannen has been under the tutelage of Annette Engel in the LSU Department of Geology and Geophysics during her undergraduate research.

“I learned what it meant to be a scientist through the tutelage of Dr. Annette Engel and Dr. Justin Birdwell, and my various research experiences at LSU,” said Brannen. “I don’t know if I would have really understood the scientific process and been able to write a research proposal without those experiences. The support of the LA-STEM community has also played a big part in my research successes.”

For more information about the LA-STEM Program, visit http://www.lsu.edu/lastem/.

All four students attended workshops to assist them in the application for an NSF GRF, which were held jointly by LSU’s Center for Community Engagement, Learning and Leadership, or CCELL, and Communication across the Curriculum, or CxC. Workshop attendees received in-depth advice on the application process and learned strategies to optimize their application for success. The workshop explored topics such as developing a strong research essay, optimizing applications for intellectual merit, developing an application strong in broader impacts and using a high-impact written communication style that will get an application noticed. Faculty including Marybeth Lima, Carol Friedland, Sarah Liggett and Paul Russo, all of whom have reviewed applications in the past, offered tips on how to make an application outstanding.

“Ms. Brannen, Ms. Cantu, Mr. Morris and Mr. Pitts are renaissance scholars who have been deservedly recognized by NSF for their contributions in research, leadership and engagement,” said Lima. “These four scholars are a testament to LSU and its commitment to providing high quality STEM education, including excellent training in undergraduate research.”

To learn more about CCELL, go to www.lsu.edu/ccell.