Wellesley Alumnae and Student Receive National Science Foundation Grants

Cosmological simulation image/Illustris Collaboration, courtesy of Kirsten Blancato
Image credit: Cosmological simulation/Illustris Collaboration, courtesy Kirsten Blancato ’15
April 3, 2017

Seven recent Wellesley alumnae and one current student are among the 2017 recipients of National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program grants, selected from an extremely competitive field of applicants. The NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; [and] to secure the national defense.” The agency receives 40,000 proposals each year for research, education, and training projects in most fields of science and engineering. 13,000 applications were submitted specifically for the GRFP program this year, and 2,000 2017 GRFP awards were offered.

The College congratulates the following NSF grant awardees, who filled us in on their Wellesley experiences, current projects, and how they will use their grant money:

Emily Ahn ’16

Ahn’s Wellesley senior thesis project (building a foreign accent classifier) and her interdisciplinary cognitive and linguistics sciences major with a concentration in computer science laid the foundation for her upcoming graduate work. With her NSF grant, Ahn will enter the master’s degree program in language technologies at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall, where she plans to conduct research in modeling pronunciation variation in speech, as well as develop multilingual models to do natural language processing for low-resource languages. She said Wellesley professors Sravana Reddy and Angela Carpenter “were instrumental in shaping my academic trajectory,” and that her four years as a varsity rower for the Wellesley Blue “taught me the determination and perseverance to be able to enjoy the challenges of research.”


Mika Fujita Asaba ’14

Asaba will use her developmental psychology NSF grant to examine how children construct and maintain self-representations through social interactions and communications with others, a topic she first explored at the Early Childhood Lab at MIT in a project conducted during her senior year at Wellesley. Asaba is now in her first year of graduate study in social cognitive development at Stanford University. “Currently, I am working on projects examining how preschool-aged children strategically select information to tell others about themselves depending on others’ beliefs about them (e.g., ‘Hey look, I can make this toy work!’),” she said. “I also hope to build computational models to formally describe these inferences and behaviors.”


Kirsten Blancato ’15

“Wellesley is where I discovered my passion for figuring out how the universe works, and where I gained the confidence to become a scientist,” said Blancato. “Close mentorship from faculty in the astronomy and physics departments at Wellesley, in addition to the research I did with them, was crucial to my decision to pursue a Ph.D. in astronomy.” She will apply her award to her graduate work in the astronomy department at Columbia University. “Most broadly, I study the stellar populations of galaxies using both cosmological simulations and observations,” she explained. More specifically, she is investigating the initial mass function (IMF) and the recently challenged belief that the IMF is a universal feature of star-formation physics, which has significant implications for understanding the observable properties of a galaxy.


Su Lin Wang Blodgett ’15

Blodgett was a math major and computer science minor at Wellesley and supplemented those studies with coursework in linguistics. She is combining those interests in the work that NSF is funding, in improving natural language processing (NLP) tools for low-resource languages and dialects such as African-American English (AAE). “I’m continuing an earlier project on AAE, where we showed that current tools significantly underperform on AAE relative to language that resembles standard American English, like what you might find in the New York Times. These dialects have been relatively underrepresented in NLP, and I’m interested in developing methods to ensure that our automated tools aren’t biased against speakers of minority languages and dialects.”


Medeea Claudia Popescu ’17

Popescu’s award will support her Ph.D. studies at Stanford University, where she will enter the immunology program in the fall. The honors thesis project upon which her NSF application was based is in her major, biochemistry—she has worked in Louise Darling’s lab since her first year, studying cardiac channel interaction—but she plans to redirect for her postgraduate degree. NSF makes this possible by allowing some flexibility in what its funds will cover. Popescu credits the organization for offering “a vote of confidence that you’ll do good graduate work. They’re willing to fund whatever you choose to do—as long as it’s in the same general field of study, of course.”


Connie Abril Rojas ’14

As a senior at Wellesley, Rojas conducted a year-long project in Vanja Klepac-Ceraj’s microbial ecology lab, analyzing the composition and diversity of bacterial assemblages in a stratified lake by 16S rRNA gene Illumina sequencing surveys. She is currently a Ph.D. student seeking a dual degree in integrative biology and ecology, evolutionary biology, and behavior (EEBB) at Michigan State University. Her NFS award will fund three years of graduate study and travel to her field site, allowing her to focus on her dissertation research full time. She will use field behavioral data, next-generation sequencing technologies, and rigorous computation tools to study the gut microbiome of wild spotted hyenas inhabiting the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. “Wellesley’s emphasis on the importance of extracurricular activities, leadership, outreach, and service has stuck with me,” she said. “I believe that outreach and service are critical components of my role as an academician and scientist.”


Hailey Nicole Scofield ’13

At Wellesley, Scofield worked in Heather Mattila’s lab, where the honey bee serves as a model for the study of organizational mechanisms in social insect colonies. “My current work is constantly informed by the things I learned working for Professor Mattila, both in methods I learned through my honors thesis and experience in the field of insect behavior,” she said. As a senior, Scofield studied insect development in Yui Suzuki’s Evolutional Development seminar. She refers to both experiences in her current research on how environmental conditions shape the development of behavioral phenotypes in honey bees. “Specifically,” she explained, “I am curious about how temperature variation and water stress experiences during the larval stage of development influences adult behavior.”


Ellen Margaret Willis-Norton ’12

Willis-Norton double-majored in environmental studies and biological sciences at Wellesley and was president of Wellesley Energy and Environmental Defense; she developed her skills in the effective communication of science during the club’s meetings and events. As an Albright Fellow, she used those skills when explaining the science behind clean water infrastructure to her group, and subsequently to Madeleine Albright ’59 herself, to facilitate deliberations on alternative policies. “[My coursework] and experiences at Wellesley sparked my interest in a career that is at the interface of science and policy,” she said. Willis-Norton now studies the effect of climate change on community structure and fished species abundance in the California Current System, and she is completing a climate vulnerability assessment for 65 commercially significant U.S. West Coast fisheries with a team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She plans to use her NSF grant to study in great detail the species that the assessment revealed were highly vulnerable to climate change.


Story image is an Illustris cosmological simulation from the Illustris Collaboration, courtesy of Kirsten Blancato.