Five Fords Earn 2020 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships
Sam Epstein ’19, Brett Pogostin ’18, Maurice Rippel ’19, Laura Seaberg ’20, and David Zegeye ’19 received fellowships from the National Science Foundation that will support their graduate education and research.
Five Haverford alumni who are or will be pursuing graduate degrees in anthropology, astrophysics, bioengineering, chemistry, and mathematics have received awards from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).
This year, the GRFP awarded 2076 fellowships to graduate students pursuing research-based master’s or doctoral degrees at institutions in the United States. Each fellowship includes a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 alongside a $12,000 allowance towards tuition and fees at their research institution. Though the GRFP prioritizes funding researchers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, this year’s Haverford awardees have demonstrated their disciplinary versatility as a group.
Sam Epstein ’19 is currently finishing his first year of a chemistry Ph.D. program at New York University. The NSF GRFP will provide three years of funding for his doctoral thesis project in Professor Tania Lupoli’s chemical microbiology lab, where he studies the bacteria that causes tuberculosis and researches ways to design selective therapeutics.
At Haverford Epstein was a chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration and conducted research with both Associate Professor Lou Charkoudian and Professor Casey Londergan, including for his senior thesis on protein biochemistry related to antibiotic research and development.
“The amount I learned from my laboratory experience at Haverford, in terms of transferable technical skills, work ethic, and presentability, has set me up well to apply for and be selected for this fellowship as a graduate student,” he said. “I plan to approach my graduate studies with the same level of rigor as I did at Haverford, keeping in mind the importance of being both comprehensive and intersectional in my research efforts.”
Brett Pogostin ’18, a Haverford chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration and a health studies minor, started his Ph.D. in bioengineering at Rice University this year, following a year spent in a lab in Sweden on a Fulbright Award. At Rice, Pogostin is working to develop better vaccine technology.
“My project focuses on leveraging peptide-based biomaterials that are designed to communicate with the immune system to help our bodies develop a specific and robust immune response to vaccinations to reduce the number of boosters required,” he said. “Think of it as a study guide to help our bodies study the correct material for the exam, which would be fighting an infectious disease. This is particularly important in low-resource environments where going to the doctor multiple times a year to get boosters is a huge barrier to receiving proper immunizations.”
He first developed the idea for his research project during his health studies capstone course with Elizabeth Ufford Green Professor of Natural Sciences Judy Owen, even writing his first grant proposal for it as an assignment.
“I received two honorable mentions from the Ford Foundation, but no award to support my graduate studies,” said Pogostin of that original grant proposal. “Now, two years later, I have actually been awarded funding to work on this super exciting project! It just goes to show that tenacity can get you a long way.”
Maurice Rippel ’19, an English major with a minor in educational studies, will start a joint Ph.D. program in African American studies and anthropology at Yale University in the fall after finishing his Watson Fellowship year. The NSF GRFP award will fund his project looking at the experience of Black boys who play basketball at elite athletic prep schools.
“I intend to produce an experimental ethnographic project where I work with these boys in their classes, attend their games, public practices and ‘media days,’ where they are subject to questioning by scouts and reporters from across the U.S,” says Rippel. “I will shadow these boys on the recruiting trail to universities across the nation and overseas for developmental play. … My study takes a critical look at how this early specialization takes away from these boys' ability to ‘just be kids,’ how they navigate an overall exploitative racist, capitalist system, but how despite this, they form intimate relationships.”
Though his graduate studies are in fields outside of his undergraduate major, they were very much inspired by his course of study at Haverford. His interest in pursuing anthropology, for example, was inspired by a “Feminist Ethnography” class he took with Assistant Professor Juli Grigsby, his interest in a career in academia was nurtured by his Mellon Mays Undergraduate Advisor Maud McInerney, and his background in Black studies he credits to Associate Professor of English Asali Solomon.
“In anthropology, you're working closely with people whom sometimes can be coming from very different backgrounds than your own,” he said. “I think my Haverford education has impacted me to think critically about the work I'm doing, listen deeply to the people I'm working with, and more ethically engage with the communities I'm in.”
Laura Seaberg ’20, who is currently finishing up her Haverford degree in math with a linguistics minor, is headed to a pure math Ph.D. program at Boston College in the fall. The NSF GRFP will provide the funding for three of her five years in graduate school and will allow her the flexibility to decide what she wants to teach and to devote more time to her research.
“I cannot overstate how integral Professor Josh Sabloff has been to my studies,” says Seaberg. “I took a six-person course with him my first year at Haverford, which propelled me into advanced courses my second year. He has encouraged me to apply to numerous opportunities, helped me shape my thesis in a way that will be applicable to my future work, and more. I knew I was interested in mathematics when I entered college, but the Haverford math community really convinced me to persist.”
Physics and astronomy double major David Zegeye ’19 is pursuing his Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of Chicago, where his NSF-funded research combines cosmology, the study of the large-scale universe, with quantum mechanics, the study of small-scale physics.
“The universe near the period of the Big Bang was very hot and dense, and many of our current understanding of physics breaks down,” said Zegeye. “Using hints from our knowledge of quantum mechanics, there are predictions that at this early time period, separate points in space to be correlated and entangled with each other. As the universe ages and grows, those points would no longer be entangled, but there should be relics of them having once been connected. These relics would leave the noticeable patterns in the current distribution of galaxies in our universe. By using maps of current galaxy distributions to search for these patterns, we can probe what physics at the early universe may have been like and better understand our origins.”
In addition to his research, he is involved in his university’s Space Explorers Program, which helps local public school students develop their curiosity about STEM. His NSF fellowship helps to fund his planning for the program this year.
“Even though astronomy is a science, there has always been a deep connection to the humanities and social justice,” he said. “… Last summer, using my experience in coding and studying city policy, I helped students learn to use artificial intelligence to analyze data about Chicago, so that they can create their own public policies to help better the city. In conjunction, we held discussions with our students on the ethics of AI and inherent biases that can exist in algorithms, which have resulted in discrimination against Black and Brown residents.”
In addition to the fellowship recipients, 1,827 of the roughly 13,000-person applicant pool received honorable mentions, including six Fords: Erica Blum ’18, Emmett Culhane ’13, Daniel Feshbach ’20, Daniel Konstantinovsky ’16, Mandara Levine ’18, and Ellen Reinhart ’15.