Out of thousands of applicants, Cornell seniors Sophia Qu ’21, Atsu Kludze ’21 and Kelsie Lopez ’21 have earned the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a recognition of their tenacity as undergraduate researchers.
The three awardees will each receive over $100,000 in grants that will help the students fund their Ph.D.s beginning in the fall 2021 semester. All three seniors are McNair Scholars, a program that aims to carry on the legacy of Ronald McNair by creating a more inclusive space for students of color and other underrepresented groups.
At its heart McNair seeks to open the door to students from underrepresented backgrounds striving to earn doctoral degrees to change the face of science.
According to the National Science Foundation, its Graduate Research Fellowship program is the oldest of its kind and has been around since 1951. According to the NSF, since 1952, of the 60,000 fellows it has supported through their doctorates, 42 have gone on to become Nobel laureates.
To these three students, the McNair Scholars program has provided unparalleled guidance as they navigated their journeys in science research.
“I’m the first person in my family to not only pursue a Ph.D., but to do anything in STEM,” said Qu, who was a McNair Scholar. “I didn’t know, even if I did pursue a Ph.D., with this field, [if they would] even want me as a professor because I am Asian and a female.”
Qu said she had extensive opportunities to pursue her passion for research as an undergraduate at the College of Veterinary Medicine with Prof. Jeongmin Song, microbiology and immunology, where Qu studied the toxin subunits of the bacteria that causes typhoid fever.
In the summer following her sophomore year, Qu studied how genomic changes alter metabolism in mice and found that these changes resulted in immune system changes.
In the fall, as a doctoral student at Weill Cornell Medicine, Qu will research the immune system human gut microbiome interaction under Prof. Chun-Jun Guo, immunology and microbial pathogenesis. Qu will aim to create new methods to identify cancerous cells in the human body.
The goal of their research is to improve immunohistology techniques — biological tissue analysis that aims to better visualize proteins in human cells to determine their function, Qu said.
Kludze, who studies chemical engineering, stands out for his contribution to rechargeable battery research with the Archer Research Group, which studies rechargeable batteries through refining the choice of the material used to make batteries. As a first-year student, Kludze started working with the group, led by the College of Engineering dean Prof. Lynden Archer, chemical and biomolecular engineering.
Kludze has been investigating the chemical interactions on the surface of lithium batteries and studying the high energy density — the amount of energy a cell can produce relative to the mass of the battery material in lithium metal batteries.
Kludze’s NSF proposal focuses on building more efficient energy storage in lithium batteries by studying ways to stabilize lithium metal batteries to increase its chemical regularity, since lithium is highly reactive and undergoes unpredictable reactions.
“We don’t just want a solution. We also want to know why it works, which is to look at how the lithium metal surface behaves during the early charge and discharge cycles,” Kludze said.
But this research hasn’t come without hurdles. Kludze said the worst issue he has faced when conducting research is when batteries lead to short circuits and light fires.
Still, his work on stabilizing battery surfaces may help make lithium batteries more practical and potentially as convenient as the currently widely used lead batteries.
“[Kludze] led with his best ideas and followed up with what I think has emerged as two key strengths: the discipline to follow through and resourcefulness to improve his original ideas by reading the literature and learning what he did not know from those around him,” Archer said.
Next year, Kludze will be pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale University in chemical engineering.
“To me, receiving this grant means that all [my supporters’] time and efforts were not wasted. I hope I can maintain the confidence they have in me,” Kludze said. “Mentorship is something that is very crucial to helping people succeed, and I am truly grateful for those who have helped me.”
Lopez, who studies biological sciences, will use her NSF grant and fellowship to research the genetic basis of adaptations in birds as the unpredictability of global climate change and extreme weather events threaten many East African species.
Lopez’s research focuses on epigenetics — the study of how changes in an organism’s environment alter gene expression.
“I chose this topic because of its long-term significance,” Lopez said. “The idea is that birds adapted to a harsh, unpredictable environment can potentially be a model for how other species might adapt to unpredictable conditions in the future.”
A freshman year trip to the Galápagos Islands through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, sponsored by the Biology Scholars Program, sparked Lopez’s passion for evolutionary biology.
“Doing that at the start of my Cornell career had a domino effect that led to so many amazing opportunities,” Lopez said. “I was hooked. I just completely fell in love with evolutionary biology. Cornell doesn’t know how much that program means to me.”
On the trip, Lopez met Prof. Irby Lovette, ecology and evolutionary biology, who would later become her lab private investigator and mentor during her time as a McNair Scholar.
Lopez joined the Lovette Lab as a sophomore in the fall of 2018, the same semester she was admitted to the McNair Scholars Program.
In three years, she has worked on projects covering a diverse range of topics, including conservation, animal behavior, genetics and hybridization. Next fall, Lopez will begin pursuing her Ph.D. under the Edwards Lab at the Harvard University Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.
“Kelsie has the combination of traits that predict success in science,” Lovette said in an email to The Sun. “A true and deep curiosity, the ability to see the big picture while also attending to the important details, strong writing and interpersonal skills, and a truly unstoppable work ethic.”