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Six Earn Prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowships


By Ed Hayward and Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Apr. 25, 2013

Six members of the Boston College community have received National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, which support graduate education for individuals who have demonstrated their potential for significant achievements in science and engineering research.

Ashley Biernesser

 • Graduate student Ashley Biernesser, in her second year in the lab of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jeff Byers, is working toward her doctorate and conducting research in the area of organo-metallic chemistry. The Pennsylvania native, who earned her bachelor’s degree at Duquesne University, said the three-year, $90,000 fellowship will support her study and work on a project to create a new class of biodegradable plastic.

“We’re trying to create a new type of biodegradable plastic that is more economical than current alternatives,” said Biernesser. “If we’re able to make this type of biodegradable plastic, it would allow us to modify the life of the polymer and tailor it to particular applications. We could make it degrade quicker or last longer.”

To do that, Biernesser is developing new catalysts capable of building a degradable product and giving chemists the responsiveness to “tune” the material to the desired use.

Biernesser credits Byers with encouraging her to revise and resubmit her application after NSF reviewers gave her positive comments last year. In addition to her skills as a researcher, Byers said Biernesser played an instrumental role in setting up his lab when he first arrived on campus and that her community outreach efforts highlight her commitment to making science and scientific discovery accessible to the public.

“This is a well-deserved honor for Ashley that speaks to the high caliber students the Department of Chemistry attracts to our graduate program,” Byers said. “Our graduate students conduct first-rate research, work closely with our undergraduates and really enrich the department.”

Nathan Nesbitt

•  A visit to the Kennedy Space Center when he was in elementary school inspired Nathan Nesbitt to pursue a career in the sciences. Today, the graduate student in the Physics Department is searching for innovative energy solutions he hopes will one day help solve the problem of climate change.

His NSF fellowship will support graduate study and a project to develop highly efficient solar panels that combine the innovative nanocoax receptor technology – developed by BC faculty – with benign, readily available, and highly absorptive coatings.

A graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Nesbitt said his senior thesis explored a similar coating scheme – namely Porphyrin, an organic dye similar to chlorophyll – that proved to be a highly effective absorber of sunlight. His goal is to apply that and other coatings to the nanocoax, a highly efficient converter of sunlight to energy.

Nesbitt works in the lab of Ferris Professor of Physics and Department Chairman Michael Naughton, a member of the BC faculty team that developed the nanocoax.

Nesbitt said his focus on renewable energy and sustainability was prompted by his concern over climate change. Nesbitt, who has been a vocal advocate for sustainable energy policy, said he’s excited by the challenge of putting his skills as a researcher to use in an effort to find new solutions that could potentially curb climate change.

“I think we all have a responsibility to reduce the impact of climate change,” said Nesbitt. “Personally, I want to focus my work as a graduate student and a researcher on areas that can potentially have a significant impact on reducing fossil fuel use and stop the damage that’s being done to the climate on a global scale.”

Lisa M. Piccirillo

•  Senior Lisa M. Piccirillo, a math major from Greenwood, Me., with hopes of becoming a research professor, plans to pursue a doctorate in pure mathematics, studying topology at the University of Texas at Austin, considered a powerhouse in this area. 

“She is the first BC undergraduate in mathematics to win this award since I came to the University in 1996,” said Mathematics Professor Solomon Friedberg, chair of the department.

As an Undergraduate Research Fellow under the supervision of Assistant Professor of Mathematics Elisenda Grigsby, Piccirillo worked on a computational problem in knot theory.

“Lisa is an impressive young mathematician and I am thrilled that she was awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship,” said Grigsby. “When she began, she had absolutely no background in knot theory and no mathematics training beyond linear algebra. Within a week, she was successfully performing calculations that give many graduate students trouble. By the end, she had obtained sufficiently interesting results — using a computer program she had written — to be invited to present her work at competitive undergraduate research conferences across the country. I look forward to following her career in the years to come.”

Piccirillo was chosen to participate in the Women and Mathematics program at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, one of the world’s leading centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. As part of the intimate and research-focused mentoring program for undergraduate and graduate women in math, she took courses in symplectic geometry and Legandrian knot theory.

Last summer, she was one of 18 undergraduates from around the world to participate in the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Cornell University. She worked closely with faculty advisor Bob Connelly and co-authored a forthcoming paper, “On Unit Triangle and Square Tilings.” 

Last fall, Piccirillo gave a talk at the Shenandoah Undergraduate Mathematics and Statistics Conference at James Madison University. She gave a report talk and poster presentation at the Young Mathematicians Conference at The Ohio State University in 2012 and 2011, respectively, as well as a talk at the 2012 Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics. She also spoke and presented at the Joint Math Meetings — the world’s largest math conference — in 2013 and 2012, respectively.

Piccirillo is enrolled in an advanced, graduate-level topics course on knot theory taught by Assistant Professor of Mathematics Joshua Greene, who also serves as Piccirillo’s thesis advisor.

“[For her thesis] Lisa is studying a problem in knot theory [that] deals with simplifying a very interesting family of knots into unknotted curves by a specific sequence of moves. Lisa surprised me with her early progress on this problem -- she quickly saw the ‘right’ approach to it, whereas I had been envisioning something much more complicated. She is now in the process of writing up her result, and I expect it will lead to interesting directions for further study. I am looking forward to seeing how she develops from a bright undergraduate student into a researcher through her graduate career.”

“[The BC Math Department] has been a great department in which to be an undergraduate,” said Piccirillo. “Many undergrads have to compromise between approachable faculty and current and inspiring researchers. My advisors at BC have all been both incredible mathematicians and fantastic teachers. I don’t know any other undergrads going into math who can say the same.”

James Dungan

•  Psychology Department researchers James Dungan, Lily Tsoi and Halle Zucker round out BC’s NSF Graduate Research Fellowship winners.

 “These fellowships are highly selective, and the fact that three students mentored in our labs have received NSF fellowships is a testament to our terrific faculty and to the excellent doctoral students they attract,” said Psychology Department Chair Professor Ellen Winner.

Dungan and Tsoi are researchers in Assistant Professor of Psychology Liane Young’s Morality Lab, where they study moral psychology and the neural process of people making moral judgments. Dungan was awarded a fellowship for continued graduate studies at BC, where his research looks at the cognitive and neural basis of distinct moral domains, specifically morals targeting one’s self versus another. He recently presented his research at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual meeting.

"Working with [Prof. Young] at MIT, and now here at BC has been such a privilege, and I'm increasingly excited about the work we are doing. So the fellowship is exciting for both of us, as it provides me with the resources to focus purely on my research - to the benefit of the lab, and my own aspirations to be a research professor," said Dungan.

Lily Tsoi

Tsoi is completing her second year as the full-time manager in Young’s lab. Her fellowship will support her transition from lab manager to graduate student at BC this fall. Her area of study is the role of brain regions in moral judgment. She recently gave a poster presentation on “Brain Regions for Theory of Mind Distinguish Between Cooperative and Competitive Interactions in a ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ Game” at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.

“There are many reasons why the Morality Lab is awesome," said Tsoi, "but one thing that I love about our lab is that it's composed of graduate students from different labs and even different schools in the Boston area. We're a diverse group, which makes the exchange of ideas particularly great. I've been working in the lab for almost two years now, and I've gained a lot of experience using methods from cognitive neuroscience (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging) to investigate different topics in social and moral cognition. I am so glad that I will be staying in the lab as a graduate student.”

“I'm really excited about receiving a Graduate Research Fellowship from NSF because it allows me to dive right into research in my first year of graduate school at BC. One of my current studies looks at how brain regions implicated in theory of mind, or the ability to attribute mental states to others, are recruited in different types of interpersonal interactions, such as cooperative and competitive interactions,” she added.

Halle Zucker

“We’re really thrilled for James and Lily,” said Young. “We are very proud of them. They’ve worked really hard and are worthy recipients of this recognition.”

Zucker, a research assistant in Associate Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Kensinger’s Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab, will use her fellowship to support graduate studies in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California-Davis.

"Working in Professor Kensinger's lab the past three years has been an enriching experience. She is a brilliant scientist who has taught me to be rigorous in study design and analysis, proactive in crossing items off of my to do list, and patient with my students," said Zucker. "I know I will carry these lessons with me as I begin my graduate training in the fall and throughout my entire career."