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Biology student wins National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

As people across the eastern United States prepare to deal with the emergence of millions of cicadas, West Virginia University student Noah Spencer plans to give these insects a closer look, researching how certain types of cicadas interact with their own unusual microbial partners.

Noah Spencer wearing a suit standing next to his research poster

In recognition of his research accomplishments and plans for graduate level work, Spencer has been named a Graduate Research Fellow by the National Science Foundation.

Spencer is a biology major in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences from Morgantown and May 2021 graduate and Honors Laureate. His current research focuses on the evolution of symbiosis between tsetse flies and the bacteria they depend on for survival.

A member of the Honors College, Spencer’s research forms the basis for his Honors EXCEL project, which has the goal of advancing human understanding of the evolution of the Wigglesworthia and their interaction with tsetse flies, while also developing innovative ways of sharing the results of this research with audiences from a variety of fields, including genomics, evolution and microbial ecology.

“My research area has been hugely important to me throughout my undergraduate career and in choosing a Ph.D. program. Getting this award feels like a validation of that passion and the work I've done so far, and I'm proud to have convinced the reviewers of its value as well,” Spencer said.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based masters and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines or in STEM education.

Fellows receive a stipend of $34,000 annually for three years, along with a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

"It usually comes as a big surprise when someone is selected as an NSF-GRFP recipient, but not so much for Noah. Noah's strong work ethic, attention to detail, high intellectual curiosity and generosity to others made him a very promising candidate,” said Dr. Rita Rio, professor of biology and Spencer’s research mentor. “I am so delighted to hear of Noah's well-deserved award."

Spencer intends to continue his education at Arizona State University, where he will work toward a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology in the School of Life Sciences. He will conduct his research with the McCutcheon Lab in the Biodesign Center for Mechanisms of Evolution.

“My proposed work is targeted towards understanding fundamental evolutionary processes that helped give rise to the diversity of life as we know it today,” he said. Spencer noted his research has potential broader implications as well.

“In a more practical sense, understanding how insects that rely on microbes to survive interact with those same microbes helps us form a more complete understanding of insect physiology. In turn, understanding insect physiology helps us protect ecologically and economically important insects and control disease vectors and pests,” Spencer said.

The Rio Lab and its collaborators at WVU, the Biology Department, and Spencer’s employers at the MindFit Academic Enhancement program were all instrumental in helping him develop the skills and experience to find and pursue his passion, Spencer said.

Students interested in applying for the NSF-GRFP or other nationally competitive scholarships should reach out to the ASPIRE Office by email at