NSF Selects UA Students, Alumna for Highly Competitive Fellowships

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The National Science Foundation selected seven University of Alabama students and one alumna for its Graduate Research Fellowship Program from among more than 13,000 applicants.

Part of 2,000 NSF Graduate Research Fellows, the students from the University will receive financial support for graduate studies. Of the eight fellows with UA ties, five are seniors, two are current graduate students and one is a UA graduate already studying in a graduate program.

The five UA undergraduate students hail from the College of Engineering and include Hisham K. Ali, of Muscle Shoals; Jordan E. Easter, of Cropwell; Sarah E. Johnson, of Mesquite, Texas; Aeriel D. Murphy, of Wetumpka and Drew Springall of Montgomery.

Graduate students selected include Jennifer S. Anders, of Gainesville, Fla., who is studying  biological sciences, and Jordyn L. Johnson of Chattanooga, Tenn., a chemistry student studying biochemistry. Both are part of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Stephanie L. Parker, of Huntsville, a 2009 UA graduate in physics and graduate student at the University of California, San Francisco, was also selected for the program.

Since 1952, NSF has provided fellowships to individuals selected early in their careers based on their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science and engineering. The ranks of NSF Fellows include individuals who have made transformative breakthroughs in science and engineering research and become leaders in their chosen careers.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is part of NSF’s overall strategy to develop a globally engaged workforce necessary to ensure the nation’s leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation.

The awards, up to $121,500 per fellowship, according to NSF, come with annual stipends to be used in the pursuit of a research-based master’s or doctoral degree.

By underwriting the training of graduate students with the demonstrated potential to be high-achieving scientists and engineers, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program represents long-range investments for the future of society, according to the NSF.

Fellowships were awarded to 2,000 students, about 15 percent of those who applied.

Ali, who studies aerospace engineering, has worked with Dr. J. Paul Hubner, associate professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics, on the application of luminescent photoelastic coatings to measure the surface strain of complex objects and integrating that technology with 3-D printing. He has had research internship experience with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Ali plans to continue research on improving 3-D printing for space applications in graduate school.

A mechanical engineering major, Easter’s research at UA has been on combustion engines, working with Dr. Paul Puzinauskas, associate professor of mechanical engineering, on technologies that aim to improve emissions and control combustion stability in small spark ignited engines. She has been heavily involved in the College’s SAE Baja team that design and build small, off-road vehicles. In graduate school, Easter plans to research controlling advanced low temperature combustion strategies.

Research activities on campus for Sarah Johnson, a mechanical engineering major, include working with Dr. Marcus Ashford, associate professor of mechanical engineering, on improving performance and emissions of biodiesel and alcohol-based engine fuels. She also worked with Dr. Leila Ladani, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, on use of ultrasonic waves to measure mechanical properties of tissue. She also had research experience as an intern for the NOAA.

Murphy, who studies metallurgical engineering, worked with Dr. Subhadra Gupta, associate professor of metallurgical and materials engineering, to research developing nanopatterned graded media for hard disk drives. She was also part of a research group under Drs. Mark Weaver and Nagy El-Kaddah, professors of metallurgical and materials engineering, to determine the behavior of a type of magnesium alloy during casting, which she will continue to focus on during graduate school. She also did research as an intern for Merck Pharmaceutical and Co.

A computer science major, Springall’s research activities on campus included improving a method of text retrieval in software source code with Dr. Nicholas Kraft, assistant professor of computer science. He also worked with Dr. Yang Xiao, associate professor of computer science, testing virtual password function, an emerging method of generating passwords, for security flaws. He also held two internships with Hewlett-Packard’s Industry Standard Server Firmware Team. In graduate school, he plans to continue research on information security.

Anders, who earned her undergraduate degree from Nova Southeastern University, is conducting research at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab under Dr. Behzad Mortazavi, an assistant professor of biological sciences and director of the marine sciences program at UA. Anders is researching the bioavailability of groundwater derived dissolved organic nitrogen to coastal microbial and phytoplankton communities and is working closely with the Little Lagoon Preservation Society in Gulf Shores.

Jordyn Johnson studies the regulatory mechanism of the enzyme alpha-isoproplymalate synthase in the lab of Dr. Patrick Frantom, an assistant professor in chemistry. This enzyme serves as a model system for the study of allosteric regulation, where enzyme activity is regulated by the reversible binding of an effector molecule. Regulatory mechanisms such as this allow organisms to respond to changes in their environments. A deeper understanding of these regulatory mechanisms would impact the growing fields of allosteric therapeutics and allosteric biosensors. While an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Johnson participated in the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program at UA where she began work on this project with Frantom.

Parker, who worked in the lab of Drs. Guy and Kim Caldwell in UA’s department of biological sciences while an undergraduate student at the University, is researching nuclear pore complexes, or NPCs, which are multiprotein channels in cells that connect the nucleus with the cytoplasm. Her research focuses on the diversity of NPCs and their role in cell differentiation and tissue physiology. Prior to her graduate work at UCSF, Parker worked for two years as a researcher at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology under Dr. Richard Myers, a leading geneticist and UA alumnus.


Adam Jones, engineering public relations, 205/348-6444, acjones12@eng.ua.edu; Kelli Wright, communications specialist, College of Arts and Sciences, 205/348-8539, khwright@as.ua.edu