St. Olaf College | News

St. Olaf student awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowship 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded St. Olaf College student Laurie Balstad ’21 a Graduate Research Fellowship that will support her doctoral work in population biology at the University of California, Davis. 

Portrait of Laurie Balstad holding a starfish with trees in the background.
Laurie Balstad ’21 will study population biology at the University of California, Davis through the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowships support the most promising graduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics by providing fellows with a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

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.

Balstad’s proposed research uses mathematical models to help answer questions related to conservation and management efforts. 

“I’m interested in how humans and the environment interact with each other from ecological, evolutionary, and economical perspectives,” Balstad says. “I hope to connect my research  to marine conservation and management efforts across the Pacific, including efforts in my home community of Southeast Alaska.” 

Balstad gained research experience during the summer of 2019 at the University of Minnesota with Associate Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior Allison Shaw, who works with theoretical models to understand evolutionary processes. Balstad explored how parasites could affect migratory behavior in animals through a process known as migratory escape, in which animals “escape” parasite-heavy areas for areas with lower parasite densities. Her research from this project was published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and presented at the Society of Mathematical Biology Annual Meeting in August 2020. She has also conducted research with the St. Olaf College Biology Department and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis.

Most recently, Balstad has been working with St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Mathematics Sara Clifton on a mathematical model exploring racial diversity in professional hierarchies, including academia, medicine, journalism, and the military. Balstad was invited to present her work at the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Dynamical Systems Conference in May 2021. 

“What I love about mathematical modeling work is that it is inherently interdisciplinary. I can study so many fields — evolution, microbiology, and sociology — using generally simple mathematical tools to gain insights into often complex problems,” Balstad says. 

What I love about mathematical modeling work is that it is inherently interdisciplinary. I can study so many fields — evolution, microbiology, and sociology — using generally simple mathematical tools to gain insights into often complex problems.Laurie Balstad ’21

Balstad credits the St. Olaf Mathematics Department and Biology Department with helping her network and access incredible research opportunities. 

“I met Dr. Allison Shaw through a seminar she gave at St. Olaf and almost immediately fell in love with the field of theoretical ecology, since it combined my interests in ecology and mathematics so elegantly. Similarly, Dr. Sara Clifton gave several seminars at St. Olaf before joining the faculty here, and after one of those seminars I approached her about potentially adapting a model she had made about gender diversity in professional hierarchies to consider racial diversity,” Balstad says.

Laurie Balstad ’21

“I also really admire the different women I have interacted with in STEM departments — including Associate Professor of Biology Jean Porterfield, Associate Professor of Biology Lisa Bowers, Professor Clifton, Assistant Professor of Biology and Education Emily Mohl, and Professor Shaw  — their mentorship and support during my St. Olaf years have helped me flourish in STEM, and their advice on research, careers, and life has been invaluable to me as I’ve gone through college and am now entering graduate school.”

At St. Olaf, Balstad is a mathematics and biology major. She enjoys helping with the St. Olaf Association for Women in Mathematics chapter and the Swing Dance Club in her free time. After her graduate studies, Balstad hopes to become a professor at a small liberal arts school and collaborate with management and conservation agencies to understand human-environment interactions.