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USF Senior Withers Selected for NSF Graduate Research Fellowship; Three Other USF Students Earn Honorable Mentions

NSF Grad Research Fellowship

TAMPA – USF graduating senior Zachary Withers has been selected for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship, one of the most prestigious and most competitive research-based awards in the STEM fields.

Three other USF students earned widely regarded honorable mentions: USF seniors Jack Edwards (Physics) and Stephanie Peak (Chemistry and Cell and Molecular Biology), and PhD student Franco Villegas-Garin (Geology).

The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind. The fellowship recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution. NSF annually receives more than 13,000 applications for 2,000 fellowships.

Forty-two Fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates and hundreds more have become members of the National Academy of Sciences. USF's Office Graduate Studies collaborated with the university's Office of National Scholarships to provide students with information sessions, additional support in their applications and one-on-one advising.

“The NSF has recognized these USF students as future leaders in science and engineering who will a make an impact in their disciplines and beyond,” said Dr. Kiri Kilpatrick, Associate Director, Postdoctoral Affairs and Graduate Student Development. “So many of our USF students are committed to tackling society’s toughest challenges through research and innovation. I encourage them to apply for this transformative award and utilize the resources at USF to help them craft competitive applications.

2021 NSF-GRFP Fellow

Zachary Withers

Zachary Withers
Senior Undergraduate, Department of Physics, College of Arts and Sciences
Advisor: Dr. Dmitri Voronine

Withers joined Assistant Professor Voronine’s lab as a freshman. He is interested in quantum and classical optics, and under Dr. Voronine’s tutelage, Withers developed a niche expertise in computational modeling of the behavior of light at the nanoscale. His research project published in the journal IEEE Quantum Electronics demonstrated a new technology that can be viable for efficient phototherapy, specifically in tumor surgery.

For graduate studies and his NSF proposal, Withers will explore how light-matter interactions in novel optical materials that could contribute to photonic quantum computing and quantum information processing. He will join either the University of Rochester, University of Colorado Boulder, or Stony Brook University.

Research has been central to Withers time as a USF undergraduate in the Judy Genshaft Honors College. Last year, he was named a 2020 Barry M. Goldwater Scholar, one of the most highly selective scholarships in the nation. He also completed a Research Experience for Undergraduates funded by NSF where he was part of a team of eight students who worked to develop renewable energy sources for rural villages in Africa.

2021 NSF-GRFP Honorable Mention Recipients

Jack Edwards

Jack Edwards
Senior Undergraduate, Department of Physics, College of Arts and Sciences
Advisor: Dr. David Basanta, Moffitt Cancer Center

Edwards is a physics major, but his research experience in computational biology was developed at Moffitt Cancer Center’s Integrated Mathematical Oncology unit. This interest was sparked at SPARK (Summer Undergraduate Program to Advance Research Knowledge) which he participated in as a freshman and continued during sequels SPARK 2-and- 3-internships. Under Dr. Basanta’s supervision, Edwards developed a computational laboratory using an agent-based model to study evolutionary mechanisms to probe the role of cooperation and conflict among cancer cells during tumor progression. The work interfaced with wet-lab and imaging studies by Dr. Andrei Marusyk. The research was awarded a 2020 Barry M. Goldwater scholarship. For the NSF-GRFP application, Edwards proposed a genetic algorithm-based computational study to explore mechanisms in cancer progression and ecology. He will join the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology program at Harvard University this fall.

Stephanie Peak

Stephanie Peak
Senior Undergraduate
Department of Chemistry and Department of Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology, College of Arts and Sciences
Advisor: Dr. Umesh Jinwal, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences,Taneja College of Pharmacy

Peak is a senior undergraduate student pursuing concurrent degrees in chemistry and cell and molecular biology. She has been conducting undergraduate research with Dr. Jinwal studying neurodegenerative diseases. In the fall, she will be joining the biology PhD program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study coral ecophysiology and evolutionary genetics. Her career goal is to become a principal investigator and manage research projects focusing on physiological responses to climate change in marine organisms.

Franco Villegas-Garin

Franco Villegas-Garin
PhD Student, Geology, School of Geosciences, College of Arts and Sciences
Advisor: Dr. Sylvain Charbonnier

Villegas-Garin conducts research in the Physical Volcanology Lab where his primary focus is on pyroclastic currents, one of the most dangerous events generated from an exploding volcano. His NSF-GRFP research proposal aims to investigate the pyroclastic currents’ deposits using a combination of drones, field-based samples, satellite imagery and numerical modeling to improve current volcanic hazard assessment methods. He plans to travel to Peru, Guatemala, and the western U.S. to gather data from several high-risk volcanoes. In the future, he hopes to expand the methodology to a variety of volcanism events on other planets.

Learn more about how USF students can apply to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program here.

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