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Mount Alumni and Student Receive NSF-GRFP Honors

Donna Klinger

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As an undergraduate student at Mount St. Mary’s University, Nicholas Starvaggi, C’21, through a combination of on-campus research and internships, gained the skills and discipline to propel himself toward success as a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University. That success has resulted in the receipt of the prestigious 2022 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

Starvaggi became the third Mount alum in four years to receive this highly competitive award, joining Dylan Holden, C’18, and Sarah Bonson Krueger, C’17, as fellowship recipients. Mount senior Mary Yenca, C’22, and alumna Julia Baer, C’21, received honorable mention awards in 2022.

The NSF fellowship recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. The fellowship includes three years of research stipends and tuition reimbursements totaling $138,000. Starvaggi joins a group whose members include 42 Nobel laureates and more than 450 members of the National Academy of Sciences.

As honorable mention awardees, Baer and Yenca receive access to cyberinfrastructure resources through the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), a virtual system where scientists interactively share computing resources, data and expertise.

“This level of success is only possible through the ongoing, substantial efforts of the faculty to mentor students both day to day in the laboratories and through these intensive application processes,” said Dean of the School of Natural Science and Mathematics Christine McCauslin, Ph.D. “It’s a labor of love and speaks to the kind of investment Mount students get from their faculty to promote their personal and professional success.”

Nicholas Starvaggi

Starvaggi’s Mount experience illustrates McCauslin’s comments. As a freshman, he became involved with the research of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Isaac Mills, Ph.D., involving transition metal complexes for light-driven reactions. This opportunity exposed him to practical, inorganic chemistry and led to internships at Los Alamos starvaggi_professional-2-1.jpgNational Laboratory in the summer of 2019 and Minerals Technologies, Inc. the following summer. The Office of Competitive Fellowships not only guided Starvaggi through the application process for a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which he won in 2020, but also provided feedback on a draft of his NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP) application.

“The discipline I've gained through research on campus and at external institutions has prepared me to achieve success as a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University,” said Starvaggi. He expressed his indebtedness to Mount faculty, especially Assistant Professor of Science Isaac Mills, Ph.D., his research advisor, and Associate Professor of Biology Kathryn Dye, Ph.D., his academic advisor, as well as Associate Professor of History Jamie Gianoutsos, Ph.D., director of the Office of Competitive Fellowships, and Associate Professor of Science Garth Patterson, Ph.D., a member of the Fellowships Faculty Advisory Committee.

Starvaggi also thanked Amanda Graff, Ph.D., from Los Alamos, John Hockman of Minerals Technologies; Emily Pentzer, Ph.D. of Texas A&M; and many others who have supported him throughout his academic journey.

“My success is their success; I would not be the individual and scientist I am today without their constant support, many words of encouragement, and consistent dedication to excellence for their students,” said Starvaggi, who was a member of the Honors and Fellowships programs as well as a NCAA DI swimmer during his time at the Mount.

As part of the Pentzer Group, Starvaggi is focusing on the development and modification of colloidal particles for the stabilization of fluid-fluid interfaces. The Pentzer Group uses fundamental organic synthesis to develop carbon-based materials with tailored, novel properties for specific applications in the areas of energy harvesting and storage.

“The NSF-GRFP will provide me with extraordinary leverage to pursue my research interests in graduate school and beyond,” Starvaggi said.

Sarah Bonson Krueger

Krueger’s fellowship in 2018 allowed her to complete her Ph.D. at University of Illinois, where she worked to develop molecular therapeutics for Myotonic Dystrophy Type 1 (DM1), a form of muscular dystrophy. In the group of Steven C. Zimmerman, Ph.D., she synthesized and tested novel nucleic acid-targeting agents for the treatment of this disease.

sarah-bonson.jpg“The Mount was integral in my development as a person and a scientist, and provided an environment in which I was able to discover, learn and grow my passion for chemistry,” Krueger said. “Particularly, the Mount science faculty engrained in me the importance of asking questions and continually pursuing truth. When I applied for the NSF GRFP, the faculty and the fellowships office helped me through several rounds of revision to my application materials. I am incredibly grateful for the support of the Mount faculty and fellowships office, even after I graduated, and their help in obtaining my GRFP award.”

While she had multiple opportunities as she finished her doctoral work this academic year, Kruger was drawn to the Mount by the strong sense of community and is returning to the university in Fall 2022 to join the science faculty.

“I could not be more excited to join this team,” Krueger said. “Not only are the faculty deeply committed to the education of their students, but the students are also invested in their learning.”

She provided two examples from her visit to the Mount last fall that resonated when making her decision. In giving a research talk, Krueger noticed how engaged students were in the material and the insightfulness of their questions. She also enjoyed her interactions with the students who approached her after the talk.

“The other thing that was really apparent in my visit was that the Mount faculty are actively dedicated to making their research groups, classrooms and teachings labs the very best they can be for the students every day.” Krueger shared.

Dylan Holden

Holden, a 2021 NSF GRFP Fellow, began pursuing a doctorate in analytical chemistry from Purdue University in 2019. A biology, chemistry and philosophy major at the Mount, he was a researcher in Professor Patterson’s lab and dylan-holden-2.jpegwon the Seton Prize for the highest GPA in the biology major. Guided by the Office of Competitive Fellowships, Holden was a finalist for a Marshall Scholarship. In his undergraduate years, he also founded the Archer Addiction Foundation to advocate for improved state and local policy on accessibility of medical and counseling substance abuse treatment.

At Purdue, Holden conducts groundbreaking research in the Aston Laboratories for Mass Spectrometry under principal investigator R. Graham Cooks. The Mount’s Professor Patterson also worked in Cooks’ lab as a doctoral student at Purdue.

Mary Yenca

Pleasantly surprised to learn that honorable mention came with access to cyberinfrastructure resources, Yenca, a mary-yenca_headshot-in-text.jpgMount senior, plans to pursue a Ph.D. at Texas A&M University in organic chemistry focusing on sustainable polymer synthesis. She became interested in this research area after the completion of a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville last summer.

“I appreciate the incredible support and encouragement I received from the many professors of the science department and the Office of Competitive Fellowships while applying for this award and waiting for the results,” Yenca said. “Dr. Patterson, Dr. Mills, and Dr. Gianoutsos, to name only a few, were instrumental during the application process, providing me with feedback and resources to make my application even more competitive. I feel very lucky to have been taught and supported by the amazing faculty of the science department at the Mount.”

Julia Baer

Also an honorable mention honoree, Julia Baer, C’21, is pursuing a doctorate in ocean sciences at the University of baer-2.jpgCalifornia Santa Cruz. A double major in biology and chemistry at the Mount, Baer, like Starvaggi was a 2020 recipient of a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. The Office of Competitive Fellowships assisted Baer in her applications for the Goldwater, Fulbright Research Study Award for which she was a semifinalist, and NSF GRFP in 2021. Baer also was an honorable mention awardee in 2021.

During her time at the Mount, Baer conducted summer research on the microbiome of blue mussels at the University of Connecticut Avery Point through the Research Experience for Undergraduates program and performed computational protein docking experiments in the lab of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Patrick Lombardi, Ph.D.

Donna Klinger