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Physical Sciences Represents in National Science Foundation Graduate Research Awards

UC San Diego students in physics, chemistry, math are among more than 2,000 new fellows

May 30, 2019 | By Tatiana Diaz de Leon

Top (left to right): Jerika Chiong, Samuel Spiro, Jessica Birky; Bottom (left to right): Ryjul Stokes, Stella Zhang, Alexander Jones. Images courtesy of the Division of Physical Sciences at UC San Diego

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, one of the most prestigious graduate fellowship programs in the US, recently named its 2019 class of fellows, including several students within the Division of Physical Sciences. The current and pending graduate student scientists—Jessica Birky, Jerika Chiong, Stella Zhang, Samuel Spiro and Ryjul Stokes, along with Alexander Jones from the Department of Pharmacology—are among 2,047 new fellows from a pool of nearly 12,000 applicants. All will receive support from the NSF in the form of a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 at their graduate institution. With their NSF fellowships, these students will continue their education and progress to careers in their respective STEM fields.

Jessica Birky (‘19) is currently a fourth-year undergraduate student at UC San Diego studying physics, and will soon start her graduate studies at the University of Washington. Her interests lie in the convergence of physics and data science, which ultimately led her to astronomy. As an undergraduate, she conducted research at both UC San Diego and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

With the guidance of her advisors, UC San Diego Professor of Physics Adam Burgasser and Professor David Hogg of New York University, Birky built data-driven models of the atmospheres of the lowest-mass stars, in order to determine the properties of their atmospheres. Exciting implications of her ongoing research include the potential habitability of exoplanets orbiting these stars, as well as a better understanding of our galaxy’s structure.    

“Having support from the NSF will allow me to focus on my research right away as an incoming graduate student, giving me greater opportunity to develop my skills and ... fully take advantage of the resources and faculty at my university,” said Birky, who, after completing a PhD in astrophysics sees herself working as a scientist at a research institute or possibly in industry as a data scientist.

Jerika Chiong (‘19) is a fourth-year undergraduate studying general chemistry at UC San Diego. She has been involved in research projects since her freshman year and currently studies the synthesis of metal-organic frameworks in Akif Tezcan’s lab in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. As a research student, Chiong had the opportunity to co-author a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). As president of American Chemical Society-Student Affiliates (ACS-SA) on campus, Chiong’s found a passion for participating in outreach and extracurricular activities, community work that will be fueled by her NSF fellowship.

“I really want to get more involved with supporting women in STEM,” said Chiong, who hopes to “hit the ground running” with new research projects while acclimating to the environment of a new university. While she remains unsure of the specifics of her future research, she is interested in materials chemistry. Chiong envisions starting out in the research and development industry and perhaps attaining a Master of Business Administration degree (MBA) in order to shift toward the managerial side of the industry.  

Stella Zhang (’18) was a double-major in statistics and physics at UC San Diego, and is now finishing up her first year as a PhD student at the university. Her current research involves studying the first stars that were made in our universe after the Big Bang. She studies their properties through simulations, to understand more thoroughly how the universe was able to evolve from simple initial structures to the complexity we see today.

“I just think it’s really cheesy, but cool that… when you hear ‘we are all made of stars,’ it’s scientifically true,” admitted Zhang, who earned honorable mention in her application last year, and was named a fellow this year.  

The future university professor/researcher attributed her fellowship award to her dedication to research and her plan to advocate and raise awareness for social issues around mental health.

“It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to stay in academia, and hopefully help contribute to the improvement of both our understanding in astrophysics and people’s awareness of some social issues,” said Zhang.

Samuel Spiro, a PhD student studying math at UC San Diego, double-checked to make sure he hadn’t misread his name on the list of fellows. He said he felt a sense of relief after being named a fellow, which provides the “extra freedom” to focus on his research and travel to conferences without the burden of finances.

Spiro’s research lies in an area of mathematics called “combinatorics,” which deals with discrete structures and graph theory. He explained that a social network is like a graph, where people are the “objects” and the network (or graph) is constructed by the relations between people. With many successful research projects and a drive to make an impact in the math community, Spiro plans to coordinate a conference at UC San Diego called the Graduate Student Combinatorics Conference (2020). His goal is to become a tenured professor at a research university where he can help advance the mathematical community and field.

Ryjul Stokes is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Stokes studies the interactions between small molecules and proteins in Dr. Seth Cohen’s laboratory. The group’s collective enthusiasm for developing three-dimensional molecules, which could lead to new ways of studying important biological molecules, encouraged Stokes to apply to the NSF Graduate Fellowship. He hopes it will help him continue his involvement in community outreach and science promotion. From serving as president of the local chapter of the ACS-SA during his undergraduate years, to his involvement in Chemistry Peer Advisory League (ChemPAL) and the Society for Women in Graduate Studies in Chemistry and Biochemistry (SWIGS), Stokes works beyond research to promote mentorship and important social issues in the STEM field.

“I have been fortunate to have excellent mentors in the form of advisors, postdocs and graduate students who have been instrumental in helping me achieve my goals,” said Stokes.

Alexander Jones, a PhD candidate in the biomedical sciences program in the UC San Diego School of Medicine Department of Pharmacology, studies the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease by investigating cell signaling networks that are disregulated in the disease. The NSF fellowship will take Jones and his team a step closer to understanding how imbalances of certain pathways can lead to the disease.

“I wanted to show that someone who grew up in rural Arkansas could join the ranks of other top students who receive this fellowship,” said Jones, who hopes to contribute to making an effective Alzheimer’s therapeutic, currently unavailable on the market.

UC San Diego Physical Sciences is listed among the top 50 schools in the world for degrees in the physical sciences. Its graduate programs in physicschemistry and biochemistry, and math rank among the top 20 in the nation.