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11 Pomona College Students and Alumni Awarded 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships

Estela Building

Four Pomona College students and seven alumni have won 2021 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program awards. These fellowships support the graduate education of outstanding and promising students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 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 recipient’s graduate institution.

Students

Ethan Ashby ’21

Ashby, a math major, will pursue a Ph.D. in biostatistics at the University of Washington (UW) next fall. He plans to explore the many biomedical research opportunities at UW and potential biomedical research collaborations between UW biostatistics and premier research institutions like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“One thing that I love about biostatistics is that the technical skillset you develop is easily transferable across different research areas. So, for the moment, I’m keeping an open mind regarding what projects I want to work on, and I hope to get involved in several different research areas over the next few years as I refine my research interests,” says Ashby.

In the summer of 2019, Ashby was awarded the Pomona Math Department’s Kenneth Cooke Fellowship to conduct research under the mentorship of Professor Jo Hardin. That summer, he worked on two projects involving the analysis of time-course RNA-sequencing data in the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. Coli) and the human parasite Trypanosoma brucei. “The experience sparked my passion for pursuing biostatistics research and introduced me to the collaborative niche that biostatisticians inhabit within the biomedical research ecosystem.”

Sarah Hoback ’21

Hoback, a physics major, will attend Harvard University in the fall of 2022 to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical physics. Hoback deferred her admission to Harvard in order to continue with Thaeles Inc., a cell site acquisition company she co-founded in March 2020. Thaeles Inc. helps install 5G technology and infrastructure in underserved communities.

Hoback has been studying conformal field theories with her Caltech mentor Sarthak Parikh as part of the Caltech Visiting Undergraduate Research Program. She says her love for quantum mechanics was fostered by Physics Professor Thomas Moore—a love that propelled her to pursue high energy theoretics physics. Hoback, a transfer student, also credits Physics Professor Janice Hudgings as a mentor during her time at Pomona.

After Harvard, Hoback is planning to conduct research in mathematical physics throughout her career. She plans to work as postdoctoral researcher and eventually start an independent lab specializing in theoretical mathematics and physics. “It’s my hope to eventually create communities of researchers that present viable alternatives for a career in professional research, by hiring theorists to solve problems in industry in exchange for total academic freedom.”

Elena Kim ’21

Kim, a math major, will be attending MIT next year for a Ph.D. in pure mathematics. At Pomona, Kim focused on the pure mathematics track within the major. “When you start learning analysis, a lot of what you learn are the same concepts you’d learn in high school calculus class, but you go behind the hood where you prove everything and you see why things rigorously work,” she says.

“I am hoping to focus on mathematical analysis and the NSF fellowship will help me focus on that,” shares Kim who plans a career in mathematics.

Kim’s love for math was partly inspired by analysis courses she took with her academic advisor, Stephan Ramon Garcia, W.M. Keck Distinguished Professor of Mathematics. In January 2021, Kim was awarded the Alice T. Shafer Mathematics Prize established by the Association for Women in Mathematics. The annual prize is presented to one undergraduate woman for excellence in the field.

Mira May ’21

May, a molecular biology major, will pursue a Ph.D. in biology at MIT this fall. She is fascinated by the human gut microbiome, bacterial metabolic pathways and the techniques we can use to visualize proteins, such as X-ray crystallography and Cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM).

May credits Biology Professor Clarissa Cheney for providing her with unmeasurable support. May did a Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) with Cheney the summer of 2018 where she first learned molecular biology techniques in Cheney’s lab. In addition, she says Chemistry Professors Jane Liu and Matthew Sazinsky have been incredible academic mentors and role models.

May plans to study a bacterial metabolic pathway involving the human pathogen and superbug Clostridioides difficile with the goal of identifying new antibiotic targets using structural biology. “I want to know what is going on in our guts. More specifically, it is my dream to establish a research lab one day and pursue a scientific career,” says May.

Alumni

Jonathan Jovani Azpeitia ’19

Azpeitia majored in psychological science  and Chicana/o-Latina/o studies at Pomona College. Next fall, he will start a Ph.D. program in social psychology at the University of Washington.  He plans to explore the ways in which marginalized communities experience discrimination and prejudice and how that affects inequality in the world.

At Pomona, Azpeitia worked in the labs of Psychological Science Professors Sharon Goto and Guadalupe Bacio thanks to SURP. These experiences exposed him to cultural and ethnic minority psychology and what it means to explore identities. He also credits the late Professor of Psychology Ray Buriel. Azpeitia says he will never forget Buriel’s words that encouraged him to pursue his interests: “There are people out there who look like us and study people like us. Your experiences matter, otherwise, I wouldn’t be researching them.”

Azpeitia regularly reflects on these words that help remind him that his research and contributions do matter. The NSF grant will allow him to pursue his topics freely.

Pieter Derdeyn ’16

Derdeyn majored in mathematics at Pomona and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematical, computational and systems biology at UC Irvine. Derdeyn’s goal as a scientist is to use his mathematics as a tool to understand the dynamics of the brain. “I use tools like unsupervised learning, clustering and neural networks to find patterns in high dimensional datasets,” says Derdeyn.

Derdeyn credits the Pomona College Math Department for giving him the structure, support and flexibility to have deep learning experiences in math while also exploring other interests.

The NSF GRF will provide Derdeyn with increased financial autonomy to pursue his own research interests. “It also reaffirms that I belong in academia and that I’m doing the right things. A large part of the application asks about the broader impacts of our work and our connection and service to the world around us. This award validates the time I’ve spent working with the Orange County LGBTQ Center and on mentoring programs to create a more welcoming and equitable world for everyone.”

Mahalia Fahey ’15

Fahey majored in cognitive science at Pomona. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Brown University.  

Jared Kalow ’15

Kalow majored in public policy analysis and minored in French at Pomona. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at MIT. He is planning on studying comparative politics and political methodology. His research interests include the relationship between public service provision and political behavior in ethnically diverse societies, with a regional focus in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“I am particularly grateful for the Public Policy Analysis program, through which I learned how to do policy-relevant research with a strong social science grounding,” says Kalow, who still sometimes refers to his notes from Politics Professor Pierre Englebert’s classes and uses the technical skills he gained in Economics Professor W. Bowman Cutter’s classes.

Jack Litle ’18

Litle majored in biology at Pomona. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Washington where he is a member of the Carrington Lab. He splits his time between the main campus in Seattle and Friday Harbor Laboratories in the San Juan Islands.

At Pomona, he credits Biology Professor Wallace “Marty” Meyer who helped him build on his burgeoning passion for natural systems. Currently, Litle studies the impacts of climate change on nearshore marine communities of animals that have complex life cycles. “A lot of coastal invertebrates that we know and love (think stars, mussels, snails, crabs, etc.) have alien-looking, tiny larval forms that swim around in the ocean and eventually settle and transform into the familiar adult forms.  I hope to further our understanding of how climate-related stress at one stage of life can affect interactions between animals at later stages in order to bolster our understanding of how coastal ecosystems will respond to climate change,” he says.

The NSF grant will give Litle a big boost to launch and follow through on some of his ambitious research projects.

Ethen Lund ’19

Lund majored in chemistry at Pomona. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and material science at Yale University. At Yale, Lund is researching processing strategies for improving mechanical properties of amorphous metallic glass alloys and machine learning techniques for materials development under the guidance of Yale Professor Jan Schroers.

Chemistry Professor Daniel O’Leary and Assistant Director of Smith Campus Center John Lopes helped prepare Lund to both engage professors and administrations and to lean on them as resources. Lund credits the interdisciplinary nature of the liberal arts at Pomona with preparing him for the work he does now. “Finally, and most importantly, my liberal arts education and the culture of student driven activism at Pomona taught me when to speak up and catalyze action to help my current department better promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at all ranks of academia.”

Lund says the NSF GRFP will allow him to proceed with his research on his own timeline and explore ventures outside the lab, like further developing and implementing DEI initiatives.

Rachel Song ’18

Song majored in psychological science and minored in Asian American studies at Pomona. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in social psychology at the University of Washington where she researches how race and culture influence our response to demographic changes in local and national environments. For example, what is the psychology behind processes like gentrification, white flight and xenophobia?

At Pomona, Song says it was her senior thesis that opened her eyes to the possibility of graduate school. “I was encouraged by Dr. [Adam] Pearson to share my thesis at the annual conference for the Association for Psychological Science… From there, things snowballed as I met other social psychologists who would eventually become my colleagues.”

“NSF funding gives me a lot more flexibility to focus on research—my interests are necessarily interdisciplinary and with the NSF I can devote more time to fostering collaborations with researchers in sociology and demography, and with grassroots organizations who understand the needs of their communities best,” says Song.