MACON – Mercer University had an unprecedented two undergraduate students and one alumna selected for this year’s National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).
School of Engineering seniors Maison Clouatre and Ebonye Smith and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences alumna Danielle Loving are among 2,193 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 $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution.
This is the first time Mercer has had two undergraduates selected as Graduate Research Fellows, and the total of three Fellows ties the University record for a single year.
“Multiple students winning this fellowship as undergraduates from the same institution is simply extraordinary,” said Dr. Makhin Thitsa, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who mentors both Clouatre and Smith. “Because the competition is also open to first-year graduate students, seniors need to have publication and research records that are at least as good as graduate students in many Ph.D. programs in order to be competitive.”
Clouatre, from Mount Airy, is a senior double-majoring in electrical engineering and mathematics. He will begin a Ph.D. program in aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University upon his graduation from Mercer in May and plans to become a research professor.
“It is an immense honor to have the support of the National Science Foundation for my graduate research endeavors,” said Clouatre. “My mentors, especially Professor Makhin Thitsa, are to thank for this award. Professor Thitsa trains highly-skilled undergraduate researchers in cutting-edge mathematics and engineering, and the success of her approach is proven by the myriad of awards her students have received – including two GRFP Fellows this year.”
At Mercer, Clouatre conducts research in the lab of Dr. Thitsa to develop intelligent control systems for laser microscopes, unmanned aerial vehicles and city traffic networks.
“Maison contacted me because he was interested in my research while he was in high school. This is how passionate he is about research. Once he got to Mercer, he was ready to hit the ground running,” said Dr. Thitsa. “Sometimes during research discussions, I forget he is still an undergraduate student because his intellect is so much ahead. He has published three articles in peer-reviewed journals and one under review. He was the lead author in three of them. Raw talent, perseverance and emotional intelligence are a few characteristics that describe Maison. It is indeed a pleasure to mentor him in my lab.”
Clouatre has held visiting research positions at the Vehicle Systems and Control Laboratory in Texas A&M’s School of Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Tech Research Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has published peer-reviewed journal articles on the control techniques he has developed, and his work has been presented at conferences such as the Photoluminescence in Rare Earth Materials Conference in Nice, France, the Materials Research Society’s Fall Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium in Houston, Texas.
He is a Goldwater Scholar, Stamps Scholar, president and treasurer of the Georgia Beta Chapter of Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society, member of the School of Engineering Honors Program, and has served as a supplemental instruction leader for physics and built analog guitar amplifiers for Mercer Music at Capricorn.
Smith, from Augusta, is a senior majoring in electrical engineering. She will begin a Ph.D. program in electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, upon her graduation from Mercer in May and plans to conduct research in controls and robotics.
“My amazing support system is the main reason why I have achieved the goals that I have,” said Smith. “My parents, Dr. Thitsa and my peers in the lab have constantly supported me and pushed me to strive for goals that I would not have dreamed myself qualified for. I owe many thanks to my support team.”
At Mercer, Smith conducts research in the lab of Dr. Thitsa to develop robust data-driven system identification for traffic flow networks.
“Ebonye is an extremely talented engineering researcher with impeccable work ethic. She is creative in her approach to engineering solutions and pursues her scientific investigation with a passion,” said Dr. Thitsa. “I have no doubt she will be a force in her field in near future. She has a keen sense of duty and a keen sense of service to others – she is actively involved in numerous outreach activities while carrying out rigorous research. It is such a privilege to mentor her in my lab.”
Smith has collaborated with researchers in the Electrical Engineering Department at Georgia Institute of Technology and the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has published a study of socioeconomic factors and sexually risky behaviors that contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Middle Georgia and presented research at the Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium, Posters at the Georgia Capitol and Mercer’s BEAR Day.
She is a Goldwater Scholar, pre-college initiative chair of the National Society of Black Engineers, parliamentarian and treasurer of the Iota Sigma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., member of the School of Engineering Honors Program, and she has served as a teaching assistant for electric circuits laboratory.
Loving, from Warner Robins, double-majored in chemistry and criminal justice and graduated from Mercer in May 2020. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
At Illinois, Loving conducts research in the lab of Dr. Martin D. Burke, May and Ving Lee Professor for Chemical Innovation, to advance the frontiers of pharmacology towards molecular prosthetics. Her work focuses on developing Csp3 cross-coupling methods that are amenable to an iterative cross-coupling approach.
At Mercer, she conducted research in the lab of Dr. David Goode, associate professor of chemistry and director of biochemistry and molecular biology, to develop the efficient synthesis of a library of potential biofilm inhibiting molecules.
“Danielle was already an amazing chemist by the time she graduated from Mercer. She is well deserving of the NSF research fellowship, and the work she will accomplish through it will have a lasting impact on synthetic organic chemistry,” said Dr. Goode.
Loving was a Gilman Scholar, student justice within the Office of Student Conduct Resolution and member of Sigma Sigma Rho Sorority Inc.
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 degree completion, with more than 70 percent of students completing their doctorates within 11 years.