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WVU students, alumna awarded prestigious NSF graduate fellowships

A composite of four students who have received prestigious research scholarships. All four students are female and are pictured in various lab facilities.

Rachel Morris from Charleston, Meagan Walker from Weston, and Teagan Kuzniar and Ellena Gemmen from Morgantown, will each receive a three-year annual stipend of $37,000 as recipients of the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program. (WVU Graphic)

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Three West Virginia University students and one alumna are joining an elite group of researchers from across the United States as recipients of National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

Rachel Morris from Charleston, Meagan Walker from Weston, and Teagan Kuzniar and Ellena Gemmen from Morgantown, will each receive a three-year annual stipend of $37,000 and access to a wide range of professional development opportunities while pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees.

Morris, a May 2023 graduate with a bachelor’s in biology, was accepted into the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences’ biology doctorate program where she’ll continue researching tsetse flies, a significant concern to human and animal health as carriers of trypanosomes.

Commonly referred to as “sleeping sickness” in humans and “nagana” in animals, the disease cannot be prevented with vaccinations.

“Tsetse flies are the sole vectors of trypanosomes, the agents responsible for human and animal trypanosomiases. Currently, 56 million individuals across 36 sub-Saharan countries are at risk of contracting African sleeping sickness,” she said. “Besides traps and non-discriminate insecticides, there are no largely effective and non-labor-intensive methods of controlling the tsetse fly, representing a large economic and medical burden to individuals living within affected areas.”

Morris said she hopes this experience will help her become a more effective mentor and researcher who works to bridge the gap between science and underrepresented populations.

“As a person of color who grew up in West Virginia, I was largely aware of the issue presented by low entry and retention rates of underrepresented populations within STEM majors in this state,” she said. “I want to engage potential undergraduate researchers by developing curricula and scientific outreach projects for local K-12 schools.”

A love for science, the environment and WVU put Walker on a path toward earning three degrees from the University while conducting important tree ring research.

Currently working on a master’s degree in geography, she plans to pursue a doctoral degree in the same discipline with her fellowship.

As a senior, Walker began investigating how information gathered from tree rings can help scientists understand the past and possibly predict future solar events.

Specifically, she is analyzing unstable isotope signatures left in tree rings from Miyake events, cosmic explosions that happened in 774 and 993 Common Era.

“During Miyake events, cosmic rays and solar energetic particles bombard the Earth’s geomagnetic field, posing a threat to modern technologies, satellites, space stations and human space exploration,” Walker said. “Having better estimates of the magnitude of past events will allow us predict what future events might look like.”

Receiving the graduate fellowship is an opportunity for Gemmen to continue contributing to technological advancements in the clean energy sector.

As a WVU freshman in 2018, she enrolled in the Research Apprenticeship Program through the Office of Undergraduate Research and connected with her research mentor Xueyan Song, professor and George B. Berry Chair of Engineering in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

Over the last four years, Gemmen explored the use of oxide ceramics for power generation with hopes of discovering a cleaner, more efficient way to produce energy.

While pursuing her doctorate in mechanical engineering at WVU, Gemmen plans to expand on her research by studying different thermoelectric materials and their abilities to generate power from waste heat. Waste heat is unused heat released into the environment during thermal processes, increasing the energy need and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to global warming.

“My research will result in systems that have the ability to capture waste energy, resulting in greater efficiency and the utilization of power that is already at our disposal,” she said. “Such capture processes may result in reducing the amount of primary energy needed to fulfill current usage rates.”

Kuzniar, who graduated in May with a degree in environmental microbiology, will pursue a doctorate in soil science at North Carolina State University.

While a WVU, she developed a passion for environmental microbiology and conducted research alongside Ember Morrissey, assistant professor of microbiology in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

As part of Morrissey’s lab, Kuzniar used quantitative stable isotope probing to explore the effects of climate change on microbial communities in wetlands, work that helped prepare her for the next stage in her academic career.

“My work will generally focus on soil microbial communities in agricultural soils,” Kuzniar said. “I am most interested in contributing to a better understanding of greenhouse gas emissions from microbial communities which can help inform other industries such as engineering to create mitigation solutions.”

During the application process for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the four recipients received support from the WVU ASPIRE Office, which assists students applying for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships.



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