Recent alumni awarded research fellowships from National Science Foundation

Two recent alumni have been awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships to continue their research work at their respective graduate institutions.

Zoe Diaz-Martin ’12 and Aaron Feldman ’13 were two of 2,000 recipients of the fellowship from a field of more than 16,000 applicants. They will each be provided with research stipends of up to $30,000 for three years.

As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the NSF fellowship program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Google founder Sergey Brin.

Zoe Diaz-Martin ’12

Diaz-Martin, a Winthrop Scholar who majored in environmental studies at Connecticut College, is a graduate student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Ph.D. program at Tulane University, where she studies animal-mediated seed dispersal dynamics and tropical forest conservation. Her research often takes her to the Chocó forest, a biodiversity hotspot in northwestern Ecuador.

She was first inspired to pursue her current research interests, tropical community ecology and conservation by spending her junior year abroad in Ecuador. “I became fascinated with the intricate relationships among organisms in tropical forests,” said Diaz-Martin.

Through her College adviser, Blunt Professor of Biology Robert Askins, Diaz-Martin connected with Varun Swamy ’01, a tropical ecologist at Harvard University conducting research in the Peruvian Amazon. Prior to her senior year, she used the alumni connection to complete a College-funded internship with Swamy in Peru as a summer research intern.

In 2013, Diaz-Martin and Swamy presented their results at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation conference in San José, Costa Rica, and their study was subsequently published in the Journal of Tropical Ecology.

Diaz-Martin said that by connecting her to Swamy and working closely with her on campus, Askins’ mentorship was an integral part of her academic success. “He was immensely helpful as I struggled through writing an honors thesis and also pushed me to develop critical analytical skills during my undergraduate years. He was and continues to be very supportive of me,” she said.

Aaron Feldman ’13

Feldman, a second-year graduate student in the Romesberg Lab at The Scripps Research Institute, will use his fellowship to study the chemical optimization of an unnatural base pair for in vivo expansion of the genetic alphabet. He was part of a Scripps team that created the first living organism whose genetic material included a pair of DNA “letters” not found in nature.

“This shows that other solutions to storing information are possible… and takes us closer to an expanded-DNA biology that will have many exciting applications — from new medicines to new kinds of nanotechnology,” said Floyd Romesberg, Scripps professor and leader of the research team.

As a Connecticut College student, Feldman participated in a research project with Professor of Botany Page Owen, and fellow students and alumni, which focused on the activation of signaling pathways during xylogenesis — the formation of wood — in cultured plant stem cells. 

July 30, 2015