Four Haverford Alums Earn 2019 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships
Jonny Cookmeyer '17, Gebby Keny '14, May Helena Plumb '16, and Wilson Sinclair '15 received fellowships from the National Science Foundation that will support their graduate education and research.
Four Haverford alumni pursuing graduate degrees in physics, anthropology, chemistry, and linguistics have received awards from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). Each year, the GRFP awards roughly 2,000 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 alums have demonstrated their disciplinary versatility as a group.
Jonny Cookmeyer '17 (they/them) double majored in physics and math while at Haverford, and is now a second-year graduate students in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Since graduating, Cookmeyer has worked with Professor Joel Moore in the field of condensed matter theory, which explores the properties and uses of stages of matter beyond simple solids, liquids, and gases.
“Most of what I study are strange states of matter that are inherently quantum mechanical—that is, we have no way to describe them outside of the framework of quantum mechanics,” said Cookmeyer. “These phases of matter are often realized in materials at temperatures close to absolute zero. We study these phases because we hope they will enrich our understanding of what possible phases may exist and will hopefully lead us to using these phases for interesting applications.”
Though Cookmeyer’s experience with Haverford’s physics curriculum helped prepare them for a postgraduate path into quantum mechanics, condensed matter theory is a departure from their two undergraduate thesis research projects in math and physics. But having experience in research environments at Haverford factored into their ability to explore a new field at Berkeley.
“I am very grateful for all the research experiences and advisers I had at Haverford,” said Cookmeyer. “I think that I would not be able to work as independently, and I would not be as successful without their support while I was at Haverford as well as their ongoing support now.”
Thanks to the NSF GFRP, Cookmeyer will enjoy more flexibility as they work towards a Ph.D. Eventually, they hope that their research can contribute to the growing field of quantum computing, which may benefit from the use of materials in states of matter explored in condensed matter theory.
“First, I have the freedom to choose what projects I work on, and they don't necessarily have to be connected to a grant that my adviser has,” said Cookmeyer. “I will be able to follow whatever directions seem most interesting to me at the time because my funding is separate from any particular project. Second, in theoretical physics, many graduate students are funded not through research but through being a TA. This external funding gives me the opportunity to spend more time focused on research and not teaching.”
Gebby Keny '14 (he/him) majored in anthropology and also took an interest in documentary film production at Haverford. Now at Rice University, Keny is pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology, researching climate change-mitigation strategies in South Korea. In particular, he is studying blue carbon sequestration, which aims to use vast coastal wetlands, called mudflats, to absorb excess carbon in the atmosphere.
“I’m interested in how the global phenomenon of climate change and mitigation strategies intended to prevent its effects become problematic in different ways across disparate social and material contexts,” said Keny. “South Korean mudflat fishermen value coastal mudflat habitats differently than Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delegates from Ghana. Furthermore, Seoul urbanites value coastal mudflats differently than mudflat fishermen. My research tries to understand when and how these differences matter so that attempts to solve the very real and serious problem of climate change do not merely create further problems, be they social, political, economic, ecological, or all of the above.”
Bridging concerns common to environmental science and anthropology, Keny focuses his research on the power of stories in the discursive international landscape of climate science.
“My dissertation project looks at how humans tell stories about the world they live in, which stories are taken more seriously than others, and the unequal effects of this for inhabitants of an ever-connected and warming world,” he said.
Keny related his current research to his independent research at Haverford, which focused on the politics, memory, and trauma involved in storytelling. Over the years, he received support from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC), the Koshland Integrated Natural Science Center (KINSC), and the Hurford Center for Arts and Humanities (HCAH).
“My longstanding interest in these topics and my particular way of thinking through them are direct effects of the unmatched mentorship I received while at Haverford,” said Keny. “Receiving awards like this take a village, actually many villages, and while I mostly spend time thinking with my Rice village these days, Haverford continues to shape my path in ways I’m sure I will only come to understand and appreciate more and more.
May Helena Plumb ’16 (she/her) is continuing research in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin after majoring in it while at Haverford. Plumb, who also minored in Spanish and math, focuses on documentation and linguistic description of a language called Tlacochahuaya Zapotec, an indigenous language spoken in a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“Because of the economic pressure of Spanish and the rampant discrimination against indigenous people, Tlacochahuaya Zapotec is no longer spoken (fluently) by children,” she explained. “One major component of my research is to document the language; that is, I record people speaking the language, work with speakers to translate the recordings into Spanish or English, and interview Zapotec people about their language and culture. This helps ensure that we will know what the language sounded like, even if it ceases to be spoken.”
Plumb’s work with Zapotec languages began during her undergraduate work with Assistant Professor of Linguistics Brook Danielle Lillehaugen and her collaborator Moisés García Guzmán. With the two of them, she contributed to the Tlacochahuaya Zapotec Talking Dictionary. She would go on to write her thesis on conjunctions in Colonial Valley Zapotec. She says that her undergraduate experience inspired her to go on to graduate school.
Receiving NSF GRFP funding for her studies in Tlacochahuaya Zapotec ensures that Plumb will have funding during her sixth year of graduate school. Besides feeling honored to be recognized her her work, she says that the funding helps combat her imposter syndrome and ensures her timely work that she loves will continue.
“Tlacochahuaya Zapotec is a beautiful language—it sounds very different from English—and it has been a joy and a privilege to study it for the past six years.”
Wilson Sinclair ’15 (he/him) is in the second year of his Ph.D. program in chemistry at Stanford University. His work focuses on the interaction between tuberculosis and the human immune system, specifically on how sugar molecules on the surface of immune cells change during infections. With this research, he hopes to discover new diagnostic and therapeutic treatment options.
“Tuberculosis is the single biggest killer of a single infectious agent, killing 1.6 million people each year, and yet our methods for diagnosis and treatment have been relatively stagnant over the past few decades,” said Sinclair, who majored in chemistry, minored in Spanish, and concentrated in biochemistry. “Additionally, with such complex treatment regimens and poor health systems in the places where the disease is the worst, antibiotic resistance is on the rise.”
By coincidence, Sinclair’s graduate research relates to his undergraduate work with Associate Professor of Chemistry (and current Provost) Fran Blase. With Blase, Sinclair worked on synthesizing new antibiotics to target tuberculosis. After graduating from Haverford, he pursued a postbaccalaureate fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, which drew him further to the biological side of chemistry. Although he isn’t working on synthetic antibacterials anymore, he’s still working with the same bacterial infection.
“I think it is great that a small liberal arts school like Haverford can still do amazing research similar to what I can do now at a bigger university like Stanford,” said Sinclair. “I think a liberal arts education was invaluable to preparing me to be a successful graduate student and I learned so much while at Haverford that was outside of the chemistry classes that have made me a better scientist.”
Besides directly funding his graduate education, Sinclair’s NSF GRFP will support his search for internships in biotech industries, government agencies, or think tanks that will add to his career development.
“Receiving an NSF GRFP allows me some more financial freedom to pursue more exciting and risky research projects,” he said. “It has also given me the confidence and validation to think critically about starting new projects in my lab.”
An additional seven Haverford alums and one current student were recognized with honorable mentions from NSF GRFP. These included Matthew Abruzzo ’17, Liana Alves ’18, Marilyn Baffoe-Bonnie ’16, Samuel Epstein ’19, Madison Glass ’17, Marie Greaney ’14, Brianna Lowey ’15, and Anthony Rizzo ’17.