Students recognized by NSF

Photos of three students who received the NSF GRFP.

Three students in the Integrated Program in Biochemistry (IPiB) have been recognized by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Christine Hustmyer, a graduate student in Professor Robert Landick’s lab, was awarded a 2020 Graduate Research Fellowship. Jacob Rapp, a graduate student in the lab of Assistant Professor Phil Romero, and John Ahn, a graduate student joining the lab of Assistant Professor Scott Coyle, received honorable mentions.

The Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding, early-career graduate students who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Awardees are selected based on their potential for significant research achievements that can benefit society. Thirty-one students at UW–Madison received fellowships this year.

“Earning the NSF fellowship is a great honor for me,” Hustmyer said. “I appreciate the confidence of the NSF in my research and career goals, and I’m excited to continue my work in the Landick Lab under the endorsement of the NSF.”

Hustmyer studies how bacterial chromatin regulates gene expression, an area that is poorly understood in bacteria. She plans to use structural and genome-scale techniques to study how environment and structural conformation influence the ability of chromatin proteins to regulate gene expression.

“Ultimately,” said Hustmyer, “I hope that in the quest to find the answers to these questions, we will gain insight into the fundamental mechanisms of transcription in bacteria, which betters our understanding of bacterial systems as a whole.”

“This award from the NSF is a clear indication of how accomplished Christine already is,” said Landick. “It signifies her potential as a scientist. We’re delighted to have her have this support.”

Fellows receive three years of financial support from NSF, consisting of a $34,000 annual stipend and a $12,000 education allowance.

Hustmyer is also a trainee in the Chemical Biology Interface Training Program, which provides outstanding graduate students the opportunity to broaden and deepen their knowledge of opportunities at the chemistry-biology interface.

At UW-Madison this year, 35 students were also recognized by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program with honorable mentions. Among them, Jacob Rapp and John Ahn.

“To me, this recognition represents confirmation that what I do is interesting and significant to people not directly involved in the project,” said Rapp. “More personally, it tells me I am at least somewhat competent at describing the project to someone with no prior knowledge of it.”

Rapp is a student in the Romero lab, which studies the design principles of proteins and how they can be applied to engineer new molecular functions.

“My project is to combine an AI [Artificial Intelligence] agent with a liquid handling robot,” said Rapp, “such that the combined system can cyclically select interesting protein sequences to test, synthesize and analyze those proteins, and interpret the results in a way that leads to more informed decisions in the following cycle.”

“Jacob is an outstanding researcher,” said Romero. “He’s made important contributions to my group’s work on AI-driven protein engineering, and I’m delighted NSF has recognized his scientific potential.”

Rapp’s goal is to create a robot that, once a scientist designs the experiment to be performed, completes entire protein engineering projects with no additional input. “Once the robot learning is started,” said Rapp, “it is independent.”

John Ahn, who is joining the Coyle lab, studies how cell behavior is affected by spatial structures in the surrounding environment. He uses computational techniques to extract quantitative data from microscopy videos.

“Cells can change their metabolism, motility, or stress responses based on the many physicochemical factors of the surrounding environment,” said Ahn, “which is extremely fascinating and has huge implications for researching therapeutic techniques.”

For Ahn, as for the other students, the prestigious recognition was affirmation of a positive trajectory, despite what has sometimes felt like a collection setbacks: “I spend a lot of time learning from failed experiments and trying to troubleshoot, which can feel discouraging at times, so it was encouraging to see that at least a few people actually see some potential in my abilities as a scientist!”

“John is a remarkable young scientist,” said Coyle. “He’s also passionate about scientific outreach and is a powerful voice in advocating for the social justice this moment in time demands of all of us. I am thrilled to welcome this fantastic student into my lab!”

“These students embody the Wisconsin Idea in their creativity and pursuit of research with the potential to broadly impact our society,” said Graduate School Dean William J. Karpus. “The variety of projects that our students have proposed for this year’s competition also demonstrates the breadth of expertise on our campus and the excellent mentorship that our faculty provide to student researchers.”

Of approximately 13,000 NSF applicants nationally, about 2,000 received awards. A list of all UW–Madison students who received NSF fellowships is available at the link below.

Photo at top, from left: Christine Hustmyer, John Ahn, and Jacob Rapp.