Two UTA students earn prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program funding

April 27th, 2017
UTA students Priscilla Glenn, left, and Mayowa Olawoyin on the right. Credit: UTA
Two University of Texas at Arlington College of Science students have been named recipients of National Science Foundation funds to further their graduate education through the NSF's prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program for 2017.

Priscilla Glenn, a senior biology major, and Mayowa Olawoyin, a second-year Ph.D. student in mathematics, are among the awardees. The program provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period, with a $34,000 annual stipend and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the institution.

This year, 2,000 awardees were selected from a pool of over 13,000 applicants. Awardees come from all 50 states and Washington D.C., as well as U.S. commonwealths and territories. The group of awardees is diverse, including 1,158 women, 498 individuals from underrepresented minority groups, 75 persons with disabilities, 26 military veterans and 726 undergraduate seniors. The awardees come from 449 baccalaureate institutions.

Glenn will earn her bachelor's degree in biology in May and plans to pursue a doctorate in horticulture at the University of California at Davis starting this fall. She started at UTA in fall 2013 and joined the lab of Jeff Demuth, associate professor of biology, the following spring. She has done extensive research in evolutionary genetics and genomics.

"I have known Priscilla for a little over three years and she has been simply amazing," Demuth said. "She is among the top undergraduate students that I have ever interacted with at UTA or elsewhere. Priscilla impressed me from the first email inquiry about working in my lab. In the time since that initial contact, she has continued to impress not only me, but everyone with whom she interacts."

The summer after her sophomore year, Glenn received an NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates fellowship at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, where she looked at genes involved in the photosystem of C4 plants.

C4 is the photosynthetic process in certain plants like maize. The C3 photosystem is typical of cereal grains like rice.

"Ultimately, our goal is to genetically modify C3 staple crops, such as rice, to use C4 photosynthesis and increase their photosynthetic efficiency," Glenn said.

Turning rice, the world's food staple, into a C4 plant like maize could have significant global benefits towards improving food security. Some scientists estimate that C4 rice could produce up to 50% more grain—and be able to do it with less water and nutrients.

At the end of her Danforth fellowship, Glenn received an award for best project and was selected to present her research at the NSF REU Symposium in Washington, D.C. in October 2015. Her mentor presented her project results at the 58th Annual Maize Genetics Conference in Jacksonville, Fla., in March 2016.

Following her junior year, Glenn was selected for an REU fellowship at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She studied the interaction between the pathogen Erwinia amylovora, potential insect vectors, and apple trees. Erwinia amylovora is a bacterial phytopathogen that causes fire blight disease in apples and other rosaceous plants. Research suggests that fire blight can be transmitted by insects but in-depth knowledge describing interactions between the pathogen and potential vectors is lacking, Glenn said.

"My primary goal was to design a project which would increase our understanding of the baseline interactions between a potential vector—the fruit fly— and the pathogen," Glenn said.

Glenn is also a member of the UTA Honors College, is co-president at the University Catholic Center and is lead resident assistant at Vandergriff Hall. In addition, she's a standout member of the UTA track and field team, where she has competed in the pole vault since her freshman year.

Olawoyin received a bachelor's in mathematics with honors from UTA in May 2015 and entered graduate school the following fall. Her doctoral research is based in mathematical biology, which uses mathematics to describe the spread of infectious diseases and can be used to model vector-borne diseases. Her faculty advisor is Christopher Kribs, a UTA professor of mathematics who specializes in mathematical biology to research the spread of diseases such as Chagas and West Nile virus through the use of differential equations to model population and infection dynamics.

"Mayowa is an exceptional student," Kribs said. "She completed research projects in two different fields while still an undergraduate at UTA, and the resulting reports have both been submitted for publication in journals. Last summer she completed a third project, on the spread of chikungunya virus along transportation networks in Ecuador, and has made a good start on modeling difference transmission routes for the Zika virus, her dissertation project, for which she obtained NSF support. I'm lucky to be working with her."

Olawoyin is a fellow in the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Bridge to Doctorate program, which is funded by the NSF and aims to recruit, retain, and graduate higher numbers of under-represented minority STEM or science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals.

She serves on the student chapters' committee and is national chapter liaison for the UTA chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics and also serves as secretary for the UTA chapter of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

She got her start in biological mathematics as an undergraduate, as part of UTA's Undergraduate Training in Theoretical and Ecological Research program. The two-year program includes mentoring, seminars, research, and specially designed interdisciplinary coursework. It brings biology and math students together to discover new ways that infections could be translated into a system of equations.

As an undergraduate Olawoyin was a member of the UTA Honors College and was a McNair Scholar, a Gates Millennium Scholar and a Richard Greene Scholar. She served as president of the UTA chapter of AWM and as treasurer of the Lambda Chi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a public service sorority.

After receiving her bachelor's in Mathematics in 2015, Olawoyin created the UTA Diversity Regional Enhancement in STEM Scholarship, which goes to an incoming UTA student from an area school district who is Hispanic or African-American and wants to pursue a degree in a STEM field. She contributes $1,000 a year to fund the scholarship.

She has presented her research at numerous conferences, including the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, the National Diversity in STEM Conference in Long Beach, California and the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute, a summer research program at Arizona State University.

"Receiving this fellowship made me pause and think about how far I have come academically," Olawoyin said. "It also made me think about the responsibility that I have to make outstanding research contributions to my field of study."

Provided by University of Texas at Arlington

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