Three University of Idaho PhD Students Awarded Prestigious NSF Graduate Fellowships
The University of Idaho College of Graduate Studies, along with the College of Science and the College of Natural Resources is pleased to announce that three doctoral students have been awarded National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships (NSF GRFP) in the 2019 award cycle. Clint Elg studying Bioinformatics & Computational Biology, and Neil Paprocki and Hallie (Reena) Walker, both studying Natural Resources are the three University of Idaho graduate students who have earned the prestigious fellowship.
“The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship 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 United States institutions…As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. The reputation of the GRFP follows recipients and often helps them become life-long leaders that contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching. Fellows benefit from a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees (paid to the institution), opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.”
For more about the award, visit the GRFP website.
CLINT ELG / Bioinformatics & Computational Biology
Clint’s research focuses on superbugs. “Superbugs are infectious bacteria that are resistant to the majority of antibiotics used by doctors to heal infections and are emerging at alarming rates worldwide. The Top Lab, at the University of Idaho, studies the evolution that leads to superbugs, particularly mobile pieces of DNA called plasmids. Superbugs use these plasmids to share antibiotic resistance blueprints with each other, increasing their resistance. My project aims to determine if superbugs that have evolved to better maintain a plasmid now also readily maintain many other plasmids containing even more antibiotic resistance blueprints. In other words, does evolution to maintain one plasmid ‘open the back door’ to allow new plasmid types in?
I really have to thank Dr. Eva Top and the Bioinformatics & Computational Biology (BCB) program at U of I for taking a chance on an older student with a non-traditional background and working hard to develop me as a budding scientist. As a teenager I was homeless and joined the US Army to help get my GED. For the next twelve years I served as an airborne combat medic, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. For six months I was a patient in a wound recovery unit where I befriended other soldiers with penetrating trauma that caused superbug infections. These superbug infections lead to painful debridement procedures and sometimes amputation. Later, my undergraduate education helped me realize meaningful research into plasmid biology could help alleviate the suffering I saw in these otherwise healthy, young adults.
Using my GI Bill, I attended Central Washington University, where I received a life changing WM Keck Undergraduate Fellowship. This research led me to read several papers by the lab of Dr. Eva Top at U of I and I discovered an academic passion that intersected precisely with my wartime experiences. The biology-affiliated programs at U of I punch well above their weight class: The Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies (IBEST) features a Computer Resource Core (CRC) and Genomics Resource Core (GRC), and we also have a remarkable Center for Modeling Complex Interactions (CMCI). Collectively, these programs represent a multi-disciplinary, integrated research environment with a prolific publishing record, strong workgroups, and multiple external funding resources. The cutting-edge resources and remarkable people associated with these programs have helped develop me as a graduate student and enabled my early career success in obtaining the NSF GRFP Fellowship.”
At this point in his doctoral studies, it’s hard for Clint to know exactly where he is headed, but he knows for sure that he wants to stay in science. “There are so many fascinating and wonderful things in science that it can be hard to choose just one path. In addition to plasmid biology, my experiences in developing nations left me with an interest in infectious bacteria largely ignored by more developed nations with potable water and proper sewage. I love to teach and the academic world, so I could see myself pursuing an academic route studying superbugs like I am now or working at a governmental or NGO organization studying infectious bacteria still relevant in developing nations.”
NEIL PAPROCKI / Natural Resources
Neil’s research focuses on the causes of differential migration in birds. “Migration is a common behavior in animals, but we know surprisingly little about why individuals migrate. For example, many birds have differential migration whereby one sex migrates further than the other, and the causes of sex-specific migration behavior is a topic of debate. Recent advances in remote-tracking technologies have greatly enhanced our ability to collect copious, fine-scale data on long-distance avian migration behavior. The Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) breeds throughout arctic and subarctic regions of North America and winters throughout the coterminous United States, with no spatial overlap between breeding and wintering areas. Since 2014, we have attached satellite or GPS transmitters to 89 Rough-legged Hawks to document their migration behavior. We trapped and deployed transmitters on hawks on the wintering grounds, the breeding grounds, and during migration. We have collected over 250,000 locations from these 89 hawks, and many are still generating data. Fieldwork in 2019 and beyond will bolster this dataset and allow us to test a suite of hypotheses to explain why males and females have different migratory behavior.”
I first became interested in my study species, the Rough-Legged Hawk, as a Master’s student in Raptor Biology at Boise State University. At BSU I studied wintering raptor ecology as it related to habitat and climate change. After receiving my Master’s, I worked full-time for HawkWatch International, a raptor research and conservation non-profit with a heavy focus on raptor migration. I was quickly drawn into the world of avian migration, and when the opportunity presented itself to become involved in this collaborative Rough-legged Hawk tracking project, I could not pass it up!
I chose U of I after several colleagues in my field specifically suggested Dr. Courtney Conway may be a good fit as an academic advisor for this dissertation project. I also knew of the excellent reputation U of I has in Wildlife Ecology, and I was intrigued at the possibilities of living in northern Idaho. I am an outdoor recreation enthusiast, and the greater-Moscow area seemed like an excellent place to live. After my degree, I plan to work as an Ornithological Research Scientist in the non-profit sector.”
The GRFP can be procured through a number of different routes and Neil applied prior to beginning his doctoral studies at U of I. One of the great benefits of the fellowship is its portability, so now that Neil is a student at U of I, he is able to utilize the fellowship funding to continue his work with Dr. Courtney Conway.
HALLIE (REENA) WALKER / Natural Resources
Hallie’s research focuses on the behavioral ecology of large mammals. “Working under Dr. Ryan Long, I study three species of African antelope in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique to understand how body size, individual state (such as pregnancy status and nutritional condition), and exposure to risk shape the behavior and diet of large herbivores.
I have been interested in animal behavior since I was a child growing up on a small sheep farm in western Massachusetts. Understanding what mechanisms drive wildlife's decision making and fitness has dominated my academic interests throughout high school and college and is now a major focus of my graduate studies. Investigating how the behavior of three species of African antelope is shaped by constraints imposed by body size, predation risk, and resource availability will shed new light on broad ecological theory and management strategies.
I chose U of I for my graduate studies so that I could work with Dr. Ryan Long, who is an expert in many areas in which I hope to gain skills over the course of my degree: from the capture and collaring of ungulate species, to resource selection modeling, to crafting impactful scientific literature. Dr. Long's passion for his work, scientific accomplishments, and supportive lab culture drew me to U of I.”
After her doctoral studies are complete, Hallie is looking forward to “eventually become a professor of natural resources or ecology where I can reach more undergraduates and share my enthusiasm for my discipline from a broader platform, contribute to our collective understanding of ecology, help young people gain the skills they need to conduct research of their own, and communicate the scientific process to the public.”