MACON — Mercer University had three alumni selected for this year’s National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences alumni Samantha Brown and Evan Stair and School of Engineering alumna Leia Troop are among 2,552 students nationwide offered fellowships through the program, which recruits high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers and supports their graduate research training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
GRFP recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. The five-year fellowships include three years of financial support, including an annual stipend of $37,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution.
The selection of three Fellows ties the University record for a single year.
Brown, from Columbus, Ohio, majored in chemistry and neuroscience and graduated from Mercer in 2021. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois.
At Illinois, Brown conducts research in the lab of Dr. Martin Burke, May and Ving Lee Professor for Chemical Innovation, to develop methods for treating diseases that are caused by a missing protein, making them unable to be targeted pharmacologically with current protein modulators. Her work focuses on utilizing Hinokitiol, a so-called “molecular prosthetic” that has the capacity to mobilize iron in animals with loss of function mutations in protein iron transporters, to mitigate and restore physiological iron homeostasis in neurodegenerative disease.
“I am shocked and humbled by this incredible opportunity. I was even more happy to find out that a former lab mate of mine at Mercer, Evan Stair, had also received this fellowship,” Brown said. “Chemistry has allowed me to grow as a young chemist, and I plan to continue this by becoming a chemistry faculty member at a primarily undergraduate institution. Hopefully, I will be able to inspire future chemists the way I was inspired by my chemistry professors, Dr. Adam Kiefer and Dr. Caryn Seney.”
At Mercer, she conducted research in the lab of Dr. Kiefer, Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, to reduce mercury emissions related to artisanal and small-scale gold mining. This included Brown traveling on two Mercer On Mission trips to Guyana and Peru, where the team monitored mercury emissions and generated maps to indicate areas of elevated mercury concentrations.
“I’ve been lucky to work with Sammy in the classroom, in the laboratory, in the field and as a colleague,” Dr. Kiefer said. “Her commitment to her science was unparalleled as an undergraduate, where she was first author on two papers associated with our work in Peru and Guyana. She’s continued to work with the Mercer On Mission program as an adjunct faculty member, and I have no doubt there will be many more successes in her future.”
Brown is a recipient of the Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Program Fellowship and Robert C. and Carolyn J. Springborn Fellowship. She also chairs Illinois’ Department of Chemistry Graduate Student Advisory Committee.
Stair, from Huntsville, Alabama, majored in chemistry and graduated from Mercer in 2021. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of North Carolina.
At UNC, Stair conducts research in the lab of Dr. Leslie Hicks, Chancellor’s Science Scholars Term Distinguished Professor, to study how microscopic organisms called tardigrades survive extreme stress. He uses mass spectrometry-based proteomics to study biochemical mechanisms and pathways that contribute to their survival.
“I’m extremely happy to be recognized by the NSF and can’t wait to continue to conduct exciting research,” said Stair, who plans to become a professor at a university similar to Mercer. “I really enjoy working with the undergraduate students in my current lab and also enjoyed my time at Mercer. I want to lead a collaborative and inclusive lab environment and help undergraduates grow as independent researchers and scientists, similarly to how Dr. Seney and Dr. Kiefer mentored me.”
At Mercer, he conducted research in the lab of Dr. Seney, professor of chemistry, where he developed methods to quantify lead concentrations in paint using X-ray fluorescence and inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectroscopy. This work was in coordination with the Mercer On Mission program in Guyana, led by Dr. Kiefer, where a team collected these paint samples for analysis in Dr. Seney’s lab.
“Evan is an exceptional student, ambitious and determined, with an ability to bring forth material while incorporating it into new areas of intellectual growth. Thus, I am not surprised at his success at gaining an NSF-GFRP award,” Dr. Seney said. “Evan is one of the most intuitive, resourceful and engaged scientists with whom I’ve worked in the research lab. I also had the pleasure of having taught him in multiple classes. I look forward to seeing where his future work will take him.”
“Evan is one of the brightest and most clever researchers I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” Dr. Kiefer said. “He thinks like a scientist and can connect his research to real-world applications in a way that few others can. Evan will be successful at whatever he puts his mind to, and I cannot wait to see where his hard work and natural talent lead him.”
Stair was named the 2020 Outstanding Student in Analytical Chemistry at Mercer and was a recipient of the 2021 Royal Society of Chemistry’s Certificate of Undergraduate Excellence.
Troop, from Cumming, majored in biomedical engineering and graduated from Mercer in 2021. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University.
At VCU, Troop conducts research in the lab of Dr. Jennifer Puetzer, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, which is working on using high density collagen hydrogels to develop engineered ligament replacements. Troop’s research is focused on investigating cyclic loading of engineered ligaments to better understand how loading influences hierarchical organization for the purposes of making stronger engineered ligaments as well as to inform better physical therapy protocols for ligament healing that does not call for replacement.
“I am honored to receive this award and am excited for the financial support as I continue the pursuit of my Ph.D.,” said Troop, who plans to seek an industry career in research and development.
At Mercer, she conducted research in the lab of Dr. Joanna Thomas, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, to develop a 3D-printed biomimetic extrahepatic bile duct for use in a more accurate in vitro biliary stent testing system. Troop worked to determine a baseline of materials for 3D printing use, as well as modifications that would need to be made to the baseline to produce more accurate material properties and allow for cell culture viability.
“During her time in my lab, Leia made critical contributions to our research efforts. She marches to the beat of her own drum and is capable of simultaneously thinking conventionally and outside of the box,” Dr. Thomas said. “I’m certain that Leia’s creativity, knowledge and technical skills were a big part of her winning the GRFP and that she’s on her way to a successful career in tissue engineering research.”
Troop is a VCU Society of Women Engineers mentor and former intern with the Mercer Engineering Research Center. In 2020, she was accepted to the University of Florida’s Engineering for Healthcare Research Experience for Undergraduates and nominated for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship. In addition, she served as an undergraduate research fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 2019.
GRFP represents the nation’s oldest continuous investment in the U.S. STEM workforce. Since 1952, NSF has funded more than 60,000 Graduate Research Fellowships out of more than 500,000 applicants. Currently, 42 Fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and more than 450 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences. In addition, the program has a high rate of doctorate completion, with more than 70 percent of students completing their doctorates within 11 years.
About Mercer University
Founded in 1833, Mercer University is a dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate and professional education. With approximately 9,000 students enrolled in 12 schools and colleges, on major campuses in Macon and Atlanta; medical school sites in Macon, Savannah and Columbus; and at regional academic centers in Henry and Douglas counties, Mercer is ranked among the top tier of national research universities by U.S. News & World Report. The Mercer Health Sciences Center includes the University’s School of Medicine and Colleges of Nursing, Health Professions and Pharmacy. Mercer is affiliated with five teaching hospitals – Atrium Health Navicent The Medical Center and Piedmont Macon Medical Center in Macon; Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah; and Piedmont Columbus Regional Hospital and St. Francis-Emory Healthcare in Columbus. The University also has an educational partnership with Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins. It operates an academic press and a performing arts center in Macon and an engineering research center in Warner Robins. Mercer Medicine, the clinical faculty practice of the School of Medicine, is based in Macon and operates additional clinics in Sumter, Peach, Clay, Putnam and Harris counties. Mercer is one of only 293 institutions nationwide to shelter a chapter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, the nation’s most prestigious academic honor society; one of eight institutions to hold membership in the Georgia Research Alliance; and the only private university in Georgia to field an NCAA Division I athletic program. For more information, visit mercer.edu.