Fiona Kearns

Fiona Kearns imageFiona Kearns
2017 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)

Fiona Kearns, originally from Melbourne, FL, is a proud recipient of the 2017 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). She describes her work during this fellowship as an exercise in determining precise calculations in chemistry.

"You know how calculators have all of math stored in them, and with a punch of a few buttons you can have the answer to any math question printed on its digital screen? That's what I do, but with chemistry," says Fiona. "I am a Ph.D. student in computational chemistry at USF. Computational chemistry is the science of designing computer programs and tools that can calculate and predict chemical phenomena without ever having to touch a test tube!"

In her application for the NSF GRFP, she proposed a specific way to design a new computational tool for predicting compound acidity (measured chemically as "pK a "). A compound's acidity is a subtle property that plays an important role in its biochemical activity, or how that compound interacts with other species in body. Currently there are computational tools available to predict this property, but they are not always accurate. Fiona hopes to change that.

During the application process, she worked closely with faculty and ONS. "My professors, namely my P.I. Dr. H. Lee Woodcock, have always been very supportive of my research and they've kept challenging me along the way," she says. "As a junior undergraduate student, Dr. Woodcock suggested I visit the Office of National Scholarships to ask about applying for the Goldwater National Scholarship. I met with Ms. Lauren Chambers. ONS helped me, as well as two other incredible USF applicants (Kaitlin Deutsch and Michael Calzadilla) apply for and win the award!"

Fiona feels that ONS has been an incredible source of encouragement and opportunity. "ONS has been a constant support system for me," she says. "When applying for national scholarships as a senior undergraduate student, they walked with me every step of the way. When Dr. Basu became the new ONS director, the support kept coming! ONS and my USF professors have provided invaluable help to me not only in applying for scholarships/fellowships, but also in discovering my true potential as a scientific mind."

Fiona says the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship provides a substantial opportunity for growth, and also gives her a stipend to fully fund the next 3 years of her graduate education. This fellowship affords her the opportunity to devote 100% of her time to research. "The support of NSF gives me great freedom in my research," she says. "The benefits go far beyond monetary, as the NSF provides services and support to aid its research fellows when transitioning from graduate school to Post- Doctoral positions. Also, being identified as an NSF fellow in future applications for academic positions will be invaluable."

After completing her Ph.D. in chemistry as a NSF graduate research fellow, she will pursue a career in academia toward a tenure track professorship. Fiona has two ultimate goals: to serve as an inspiring chemistry educator and conduct research in biochemistry to clarify how the world works at the smallest of scales. These two goals will not remain mutually exclusive, as she hopes to encourage undergraduate students to branch out of the classroom and find their way to undergraduate research experiences.

Congratulations to Fiona on winning the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)!

Interested in graduate research fellowship opportunities? Please contact Dr. Sayandeb Basu: