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St. Olaf senior awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

RobinsonSerina350x450The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded St. Olaf College student Serina Robinson ’15 a prestigious three-year Graduate Research Fellowship that will support her work in microbiology and immunology.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowships support the most promising graduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Fellows are expected to become experts in their field who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

Past recipients of the award include numerous Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin, and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

“I’m very proud of how well our students are prepared for graduate school,” says St. Olaf Associate Dean for the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Mary Walczak. “The NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are very competitive, and to have one of our students recognized in this way is a testament to how our programs are viewed nationally. Serina Robinson has demonstrated her exceptional talent and dedication here on campus, and it is wonderful that she is also being recognized with this fellowship.”

Robinson was also named a Fulbright fellow to Norway for 2015–16. She will work in a lab at the Arctic University in Tromsø, where she will study the Arctic bacterium Methylobacter tundripaludum. The bacterium is capable of converting methane into carbon dioxide at very low temperatures. This conversion process is of interest to scientists who wish to understand how rising temperatures in the Arctic will impact the bacterium’s metabolism.

After her year in Norway, Robinson will return to Minnesota to pursue her Ph.D. through the MICaB (microbiology, immunology, and cancer biology) program at the University of Minnesota. She hopes to join a lab that focuses on using computational approaches to study the human microbiome and its connection to disease.

As a Beckman Scholar at St. Olaf, Robinson received funding for research spanning two summers and an academic year. She spent the summer of 2013 in Denali National Park, where she performed research under the guidance of Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Schade. Last summer, Robinson investigated the effects of a chemical pollutant (MBT) on retinal pigmentation and development.

Robinson also received a prestigious two-year research fellowship from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which she used to examine methods of reusing valuable nutrients found in agricultural runoff. The fellowship is part of the EPA’s Greater Research Opportunities for Undergraduates program.

A chemistry and Norwegian major, Robinson studied abroad in January 2014 at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. There she “used genome-scale metabolic modeling to identify drug targets in the tuberculosis pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis,” she says.

Robinson currently works in the lab of St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Biology Lisa Bowers, where she studies the genetics of outer membrane transporters in the bacteria Caulobacter crescentus. She has also worked with Associate Professor of Computer Science Olaf Hall-Holt on the development of the St. Olaf course Computer Science for Scientists and Mathematicians, and in March they presented at the 2014 Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education conference in Kansas City. Robinson hopes to become a university professor and research advisor.

Three St. Olaf alumni — John Erich Christian ‘14, Hannah Marti ‘14, and Christine Nervig ‘14 — also received NSF Graduate Research Fellowships this year.

Christian is pursuing a Ph.D. in glaciology at the University of Washington. In his project he will analyze the relative contributions of human-driven climate change and natural climate variability in forcing glacial changes. This work involves examining records of recent glacial changes, as well as analyzing “sources of uncertainty in predictions for how glaciers will respond to continued climate change.”

Nervig is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at the University of Utah. In her research she utilizes a variety of physical organic techniques to examine reaction mechanisms. Based on her results, she predicts how reaction efficiency and selectivity can be increased during methodology development. Nervig is especially interested in how catalysts can be derived to enhance reaction conditions.

Marti studies the evolution of social organization in ant colonies. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Texas at Austin.