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June 7, 2018

Record number of UMass Boston students earn NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

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  • Boston

Chemistry PhD students Sederra Ross and Jessica Karch and psychology PhD student Kirsten Christensen made UMass Boston history this spring when they received NSF Graduate Research Fellowships.

The Chemistry Department has never had a winner of this prestigious award before, much less two, and UMass Boston hasn't had three winners in a given year since 2013, when there were winners from environmental sciences, psychology, and computer science.

The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) supports graduate research training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields for early-career scientists and engineers. More than 12,000 people nationwide applied for a fellowship this year, but only 2,000 received it, including the three UMass Boston winners.

Ross, Karch, and Christensen all received a stipend of $34,000 per year for three years and a $12,000 tuition waiver for three years, for a total award of $138,000.

The fellowship funds will support Christensen, who is from East Brunswick, New Jersey, and her research work in positive youth development and youth mentorship.

“I’ve specifically been looking at the role of athletic coach mentors and looking at how they influence academic outcomes for youth,” Christensen said. “One of the things that I found was that youth with low socioeconomic status would be less likely to have access to coach mentors, which is really important because we know adult mentors in their lives can have really positive impacts, and so we want to make sure those people are available to the people who need them the most.”

She’s next planning to look at the role of program staff in arts programs, particularly in urban communities, who might provide emotional support or technical skills to youth. After she earns her PhD, she plans to become a professor and continue conducting community-based research through projects related to social justice, positive youth development, and mentoring in the context of youth extracurricular activities. 

Ross, who, like the others, is entering her third year at UMass Boston, is from Atlanta, Georgia, and in the green chemistry track. Her fellowship funds will support the spectroscopic detection and characterization of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that could potentially contribute to climate change.

"Hydrocarbons, specifically alkenes, are emitted into the atmosphere from vehicle exhaust and/or plant emission, which alone can lead to the formation of soot and black carbon. During the daytime, there are a lot of OH (hydroxyl radicals, an important molecule in atmospheric chemistry) in the atmosphere that can react with these hydrocarbons," Ross said. "So we’re going to be studying specific alkenes and how they react with those hydroxyl groups in order to form adducts. And these adducts are actually what form large organic aerosols, which we know help contribute to climate change."

Ross’s ultimate goal is to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. She also wants to enter academia and run a research lab that focuses on green chemistry and start a company that focuses on greener products.

Karch, who is from Camarillo, California, is in the chemistry education research track and studying how students solve problems.

“I’m looking at how they use abstractions to solve problems in physical chemistry,” Karch said. “By abstraction I mean this process of taking specifics and generalizing them to their essence and applying that back to the specifics. So, for example, a problem that I asked students in an interview had a lot of different parts and they had to draw on a lot of different types of knowledge that didn’t seem to be connected, so I was looking at how they connected those things on sort of a higher level with reasoning.” 

Karch would like to teach at a public university – a university like UMass Boston – because she is interested in equity in education.

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