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WVU students receive NASA Space Grant fellowships

Eight students from West Virginia University’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences have been awarded undergraduate fellowships from the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium for the 2018-2019 academic year.

Each student will receive a $1,000 award: $500 from the Eberly College and $500 from the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. The recipients are Erica Chwalik, Dillion Cottrill, Ryan Culp, Brenden Glover, Janna Kleinsasser, Maxwell Reese, Simon Wirth and Olivia Young.

“The Eberly College is proud and delighted that so many of our students have received these fellowships and have an opportunity to pursue original research with their faculty mentors,” said Gregory Dunaway, dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. “These individuals are conducting important research, and we are excited to see their results and their impact.” 

Erica Chwalik

Erica Chwalik headshot
Erica Chwalik

Inwood, West Virginia, native Erica Chwalik always planned to pursue a career in astrobiology or planetary science, which solidified her decision to attend WVU as a physics major with minors in mathematics and astronomy.

“I’ve always really wanted to study astrobiology or planetary science, and I chose physics as an undergraduate because I think it’s really cool,” Chwalik said. “You can also focus a lot more on what is happening in space through physics.”

Chwalik, a junior, hopes to search for prompt emissions from fast radio bursts as an individual project under the guidance of Duncan Lorimer, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Eberly College's associate dean for research.

“The key to discovering more about these astronomical phenomena is observation and correlation,” Chwalik said. “It’s currently hypothesized that thousands of these bursts occur in the sky every day, and yet only around 60 of them have been observed so far. Efforts around the world, including many hours of telescope time, are being put into increasing this number, but the research constraining the origin of these busts is lacking. At WVU, researchers under Professor Lorimer are filling this gap.”

Chwalik hopes to present her research at various conferences, and the grant will directly support her travel expenses. She aspires to attend graduate school after graduating from WVU.

“Before I started research, I was working a part-time job, and it was taking up a lot of time,” Chwalik said. “Now, with this grant and through the research I am doing, I can focus on that and furthering my major. My goal is to present the results of this research at the summer 2019 meeting of the American Astronomical Society in St. Louis, Missouri. The funds provided by the Space Grant award will directly support this opportunity.”

Dillion Cottrill

Dillon Cottrill Headshot
Dillon Cottrill

Dillion Cottrill, a sophomore physics major and computer science minor, hopes to use the NASA Space Grant fellowship to study the fundamental interactions of the universe.

“Receiving this grant means I am a paid research assistant,” Cottrill said. “This allows me to spend less time working and more time doing research. It also means that someone is confident I can produce good science.”

Cottrill plans to research coherent manipulation and measurement of solid-state quantum bits, which are the most basic units of quantum mechanical information, as part of a research team under Edward Flagg, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. His role in the project is data acquisition and analysis.

“The goal of the project is to create and refine mechanisms to preform three operations on a qubit, which is embodied by the spin of an electron trapped in a quantum dot,” Cottrill said. “The research is incredibly important to the advancement of the understanding of qubits, quantum dots and quantum computation in general. These small dots could be the keys that allow us to unlock the secrets of quantum information technology, allowing us to innovate and change the face of computation and encryption. With qubits and the ability to manipulate them, we can create a new world of communication – one that is faster and more sophisticated than ever before.”

Some of his favorite memories at WVU include using lasers in lab and traveling to Puerto Rico to use the Arecibo Observatory. Cottrill is a member of the Science Public Outreach Team, the Society of Physics Students, the Astronomy Club, WVU Experimental Rocketry Club and WVUCyber. In the future, he hopes to pursue a graduate education and work with applications of quantum information.

“Physics is awesome,” Cottrill said. “The program is rigorous and thought-provoking, but I believe my major is preparing me for any job I would need physics for.”

Ryan Culp

Ryan Culp
Ryan Culp

Ryan Culp, an Encinitas, California, native, chose to pursue a degree in geology because of a historical geology course he took as a freshman. Since that time, Culp has studied abroad in Iceland, joined the geology honors fraternity Sigma Gamma Epsilon and attended a geology field camp, which he credits as his favorite memory while at WVU.

“We went to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Badlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and southwest Montana for five weeks of field mapping,” Culp said. “It was so fun and the best five weeks of a summer I’ve ever had. I saw amazing landscapes, hiked, studied geology, mapped landscapes and made some good friends.”

Culp also received the NASA Space Grant fellowship in 2017, which he used to analyze the data collected for his astronomy research. He hopes to continue this research with the new funding to create images of each region he detected in last year’s data. He is advised by Associate Professor of Astronomy Loren Anderson.

“The NASA Space Grant fellowships really helped further my research experience as an undergraduate,” Culp said. “It is really exciting to receive this award twice. It means that I can continue to do astronomy research and broaden my knowledge about a topic I find really interesting.”

Culp hopes to attend graduate school in fall 2019 to study other planets and their processes and eventually pursue a career in planetary geology.

“My major is preparing me for the fundamentals in geology that will be beneficial in the real world,” Culp said. “Geology is a really fun major. You can get involved with so many careers with a geology degree because it encompasses so many different topics. I think it is interesting to know about the Earth and what was happening in the past. We get to spend a lot of time outside, which is one of the best parts about being a geology major.”

Brenden Glover

Brenden Glover headshot
Brenden Glover

Physics major Brenden Glover, Rural Valley, Pennsylvania, is appreciative of the NASA Space Grant fellowship because it allows him to devote his time to his research.

“With the grant, I can use the time that I would have been working to spend creating a program that does translations of the cosmic microwave background to look for a certain signature of non-homogeneity of the cosmic microwave background,” Glover said. “It means that I can spend more time furthering my career.”

Glover will be using the grant to search for evidence of an anisotropic structured cosmic microwave background as an individual project under Lorimer, his research adviser. He hopes to pursue a graduate degree following his graduation from WVU in May 2019.

“This is a new and unresearched application of the searchlight and Doppler effects on the cosmic microwave background,” Glover said. “Evidence of an anisotropic cosmic microwave background would challenge current theory and models of the early, current and future universe.”

Janna Kleinsasser

Janna Kleinnsasser headshot
Janna Kleinnsasser

Sophomore Janna Kleinsasser, a Rifton, New York, native, is a chemistry and biology dual major, which she first pursued because of the broad array of career options these disciplines gave her.

“At the time, I thought I would become a secondary school teacher,” Kleinsasser said. “After a month of chemistry and biology classes, I was completely intrigued. The incredible intricacies and the complexity and simplicity of life below the surface awed me and gave me a sense of adventure.”

With the NASA Space Grant fellowship, Kleinsasser plans to research soil stresses and mine reclamation under Professor of Biology Jonathan Cumming.

“Growth and development of almost every plant is assisted by mutualistic relationships with various bacteria and fungi,” Kleinsasser said. “By collecting microbes such as mycorrhizal fungi and plant growth promoting bacteria from post mining sites, I will engineer a microbial community resistant to metal toxicity and resilient to acidic growing conditions.”

While Kleinsasser originally came to WVU to pursue a teaching career, she has been inspired by the opportunities she has received through her majors and the chance to engage in research because it combines many of her interests: science, problem solving and teaching.

“Through this fellowship, I have been inspired to search for other research opportunities,” Kleinsasser said. “Research that improves our earth and sustains it for future generations is the perfect application of my education.”

Maxwell Reese

Maxwell Reese headshot
Maxwell Reese

Chemistry has fascinated Maxwell Reese, from Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, for as long as he can remember, which encouraged him to major in chemistry and minor in geology at WVU.

“The idea of taking A and B and making C is something I find oddly satisfying,” Reese said. “Chemistry represents this in just about the purest form. “

After graduating from WVU, Reese hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry while focusing on the study of organo acitinide species, which he feels his major and undergraduate research are providing a solid foundation for.

“Undergraduate research is an excellent way to expand one’s knowledge of their field,” Reese said. “Not only does it force technical development, but it allows for experiences that otherwise wouldn’t be available for undergraduates.”

With the NASA Space Grant fellowship, Reese plans to research the influence of second coordination sphere boranes on rhodium oxidative addition of aldehydes alongside Assistant Professor of Chemistry Brian Popp.

“I’m honored to receive the fellowship because it will allow me to present my research at the American Chemical Society’s 2019 national meeting,” Reese said. “I think the most interesting part of my research is all of the opportunities it yields me. During research, I’ve done many techniques and reactions that I had only ever read or heard about. It’s rewarding to see that the things you are learning in and out of class aren’t just random bits of information, rather they have real, legitimate uses.”

Simon Wirth

Simon Wirth
Simon Wirth

Sistersville, West Virginia, native Simon Wirth has enjoyed math and science subjects for as long as he can remember. Attending the Governor’s Honors Academy solidified his decision to major in physics at WVU.

“Upon taking a class in high school, I fell in love with the concepts and barrier pushing of physics,” Wirth said. “The thing that ultimately solidified my choice was going to the Governor’s Honors Academy. The atmosphere there fostered such a healthy learning environment that I just had to make physics my major.”

During his time at WVU, Wirth has been involved with the Society of Physics Students, WVU Astro Club and WVUTeach. In the future, Wirth hopes to do research daily, but he also wants to teach at a high school because of the way his high school physics teacher influenced him. 

“I would explain my program as tough, but very much worth it,” Wirth said. “The Department of Physics and Astronomy wants to see its students’ succeed, not only in college, but also in their careers. I feel as though my major is preparing me for any science-related field of work. The work ethic and problem solving methods that the physics major has instilled in me thus far have done me well in life.”

Wirth believes this scholarship will support his academic career by allowing him to investigate into a field that he is interested in while also allowing him to play a bigger role in his research team, led by Associate Professor of Physics Mikel Holcomb, by using up-to-date technology as they try to develop algorithms for optimizing material properties.

“Receiving this scholarship means that I am indeed capable of doing something that I love,” Wirth said. “It means that I can dedicate more of my time to doing research while not distracting myself from my studies. This scholarship also solidifies my place here at WVU as a student researcher, so it is nice to have that confirmation.”

Olivia Young

Olivia Young headshot
Olivia Young

The summer before her junior year, Ridgeley, West Virginia, native Olivia Young attended the West Virginia Youth Science Camp at the Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. This was the first time she had been exposed to radio astronomy. Shortly after, Young learned about the second law of thermodynamics and fell in love with the way physics helps define the way the universe works, which led her to pursue a physics major with an emphasis on astronomy and a mathematics minor.

“Being an undergraduate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at WVU is in many ways a unique experience,” Young said. “There are many world-class physicists and astronomers that work and lecture here, which gives students many opportunities that they may not have at other universities, such as undergraduate research.”

During the summer 2018, Young participated in NANOGrav and NSF’s International Research Experience for Students, where she conducted research at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. She hopes to use the grant to research pulsar and fast radio bursts at the Green Bank Observatory alongside Eberly Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy Maura McLaughlin.

After graduation, Young plans to attend graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics and dreams of one day working as a staff scientist at the Green Bank Observatory.

“The Space Grant fellowship is not only a monetary incentive to continue my research but is also a huge source of pride and motivation,” Young said. “Not only the classes that I will take during my time at WVU, but also the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had and the skills I have learned will all propel me forward toward my goals.”

These research opportunities were made possible by NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium Training Grant no. NNX15AI01H.

“We are honored to support our state’s next generation of scientists through these competitive scholarships,” said Candy Cordwell, program manager of the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium.