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By the Communications Office

Four Occidental alumni and a graduating senior have been awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships. Presented annually to candidates in the sciences and social sciences who are pursuing a master’s degree or Ph.D., the fellowship provides three years of support for graduate study.

Adrian Wong ‘18, Amelia Blankenau ‘21, Ella Kirsch ‘22, Kelsey Reckling ‘22 and Tehreem Hai ‘23 were awarded fellowships, which include a $37,000 living stipend and a $12,000 cost of living allowance. Two other Occidental alumni, Maeve Secor ‘21, an evolutionary biology Ph.D. student at USC, and Laurence Seabrook, a cell biology Ph.D. student at UC Irvine, were awarded honorable mentions.

Wong, a Ph.D. student at UC San Diego studying biophysics, says that what excites him most about his research is its “broad applications to human health.” Wong’s research centers on the relationship between cellular metabolism and the properties of cell membranes. Such findings have potential connections to many metabolic and neurological diseases, as well as certain cancers. Wong credits the “outstanding teaching and mentorship” he received during his time at Oxy, particularly while working in research with the late Professor Aram Nersissian, as an inspiration that “ignited his passion for scientific inquiry.” 

Kirsch is currently a research assistant in Oxy's Moore Lab of Zoology, where she is working to protect a bird species called the green jay (Cyanocorax yncas) by researching its phylogeny. Kirsch explains that her research is important because she has found that the northeastern population of green jays is so different from other subspecies that it could “possibly be considered a completely different species.” This is significant, as “designating something as its own species can be very important for wildlife conservation policies,” a topic Kirsch is passionate about. Kirsch is grateful for her ability to continue with the Moore Lab of Zoology, where she has conducted research since her sophomore year at Occidental.

Reckling also works in the Moore Lab, where she researches genetic variation in red warblers (Cardellina ruber), a Mexican species. She also studies bird migration at Bear Divide, a field site in the San Gabriel Mountains. Recently, Reckling had the opportunity to present her research at the American Ornithological Society conference in Puerto Rico. When reflecting on her undergraduate experience at Oxy, Reckling notes the wide variety of skills she learned, including “working with museum collections, doing lab work in the genomics center, learning computational biology, shaping research questions, and writing grants – to name a few!” 

Blankenau is a doctoral student in counseling psychology at the University of Minnesota, where she studies race, ethnicity, migration, and mental health under Dr. Rich Lee. Blankenau’s research focuses on the experiences and well-being of individuals with multiple marginalized identities, particularly in the contexts of adoption and health equity, specifically the intergenerational transmission of racial attitudes and its impact on youth development in transracial adoptive families. Blankenau says she is “excited to utilize the interdisciplinary knowledge” she gained from her coursework at Occidental, which included studies in psychology, critical theory, and public health. Blankenau says that she is indebted to the late Professor Andrea Hopmeyer, who was her undergraduate research mentor and academic advisor. Working with Hopmeyer for all four years at Oxy, Blankenau was able to publish a first-authored research article in the Journal of Homosexuality, which she said was “integral to [her] development as a researcher.” 

Hai, a physics major from San Mateo, is passionate about her current astronomy research with Assistant Professor of Physics Sabrina Stierwalt on mergers between low mass dwarf galaxies. Hai says one of the most exciting facets of her research is getting the opportunity to expand the field of astronomy through the discoveries she makes. Hai explains that since “Hubble took these images specifically for Dr. Stierwalt,” she gets to be the “first one to find and analyze star clusters in these galaxies,” which she says “blows my mind.” Hai appreciates how her education at Occidental has made her a well-rounded student and scientist, particularly in the realm of communication and writing. “Scientists cannot be productive members of society if they aren’t able to write about and present their work to the general public, and I think Oxy’s liberal arts education has trained me to write and communicate very well,” she says.