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Eight Auburn University students, graduates receive National Science Foundation fellowships

Published: May 12, 2022
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Eight current or former Auburn University students have won this year’s National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, a program designed to help ensure the vitality and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce in the United States.

Each fellowship consists of three years of support accessible over a five-year period. For each year, the NSF provides a stipend of $34,000 to the fellow and a cost-of-education allowance of $12,000 to the degree-granting institution.

“That Auburn University students continue to receive these highly prestigious fellowships is a testament to the pathbreaking science and engineering research happening on our campus,” said Tiffany Sippial, director of Auburn’s Honors College. “These eight awardees are richly deserving of this recognition for their extraordinary work.”

The following have been selected as National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, or NSFGRF, recipients for 2022:

Madeleine Forbes, originally from Mobile, Alabama, is an Auburn graduate with a bachelor’s in chemistry. She will pursue doctoral studies in nuclear engineering at the University of Florida. The title of her research is “Synthesis of Selective Actinide Chemosensors for Reprocessing Spent Nuclear Waste.”

“After fuel goes through the nuclear fuel cycle, you’re left with a vat of aqueous waste, filled with many kinds of radioisotopes,” Forbes said. “Our research team wants to know how to deal with this waste in a safe manner. I’m interested in the design and development of molecules to selectively target uranium [uranyl specifically, UO22+] in that waste.”

Forbes works with Douglas Goodwin, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in Auburn’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, and Anne Gorden, former associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Auburn, now with Texas Tech.

“I am so grateful to receive this award,” said Forbes. “I could not have done it without the support and guidance from my research mentors and family. I am beyond excited for my graduate studies and to see the project come to fruition.”

Nathan O’Hare, originally from Huntsville, Alabama, received both of his bachelor’s degrees from Auburn in chemistry and neuroscience and is currently pursuing his doctorate in chemistry. His research is titled “Selective Dearmoatization of Nitrogen Heterocycles.” 

“Our research group works on novel ways to build structural motifs that are common in pharmaceuticals,” O’Hare said. “These structural elements can be challenging to make, and the methods we develop open the door for researchers to build and test new drugs more rapidly, or to make existing drugs more efficiently.”

O’Hare works with his research advisor Rashad Karimov, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry with COSAM.

“The NSFGRF is a huge honor, and I am eager to utilize these resources to continue our innovative research and scientific outreach,” O’Hare said.

Mike “Chris” Norris, originally from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, is pursuing his doctorate in biology, particularly developmental ecology. The title of Norris’ research is “Effects of Developmental Thermal Stress on Different Components of Fitness Across Ontogeny.”

According to Norris, he studies the lasting effects of developmental environments and is interested in knowing if stressful embryonic conditions can cause changes in growth, survival and reproduction in brown anoles, which are small lizards. His research professor is Daniel Warner, associate professor of biological sciences with COSAM.

“I am very grateful to have received the NSFGRF,” Norris said. “I would not have had this opportunity if not for Dan Warner and the many other mentors I have had along the way.”

Antrelle Dominique Clark, originally from Dallas, is pursuing her doctorate in marine biology at Auburn. Clark’s research project is titled “Climatic Impacts on the Marine Ctenophore Mnemiopsis Leidyi.”

According to Clark, her project aims to use Mnemiopsis leidyi, or ctenophore, and Gymnamoebae as the model organisms for understanding how host/microbe interactions are altered when exposed to conditions that mimic a changing coastal environment.

“This will involve me determining how conditions associated with climate change affect the amoebae’s association specifically with the comb plates of the ctenophore,” Clark said. “To our knowledge, this will be the first investigation into how environmental stressors influence the ctenophore-amoebae symbiosis.”

Clark works with Anthony Moss, associate professor and marine biology coordinator with COSAM.

“Becoming a recipient of the NSFGRF was definitely a shocking moment for me,” said Clark. “It still feels surreal, but I hope to use this opportunity to encourage others in underrepresented groups to reach for the stars because only you can make your dreams happen, no one else.”

Laramie Smith Aközbek, originally from Alpharetta, Georgia, is pursuing her doctorate in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences in Auburn’s College of Agriculture.

Smith Aközbek is a distance student based at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama. Her research is titled “Setting a Genomic Foundation for Non-leguminous Nitrogen Fixation in Angiosperms.”

According to Smith Aközbek, her research focuses on using genomic techniques to understand the evolution and genetic basis of biological nitrogen fixation in non-legumes like Morella cerifera.

“Biological nitrogen fixation is essentially when plants ‘make their own fertilizer’ thanks to a partnership with bacteria that live in their tissues [usually roots] and help convert atmospheric nitrogen, or N2, into a more useful form for the plants. My research aims to provide the genomic foundation,” Smith Aközbek said.

Smith Aközbek works with Alex Harkess, assistant professor of plant genomics and faculty investigator with the Hudson Alpha.

“I am deeply honored to receive this award, and I am so grateful to those who made it possible through their encouragement and mentorship: my advisor, Dr. Alex Harkess, and the rest of my lab, as well as my husband and my family,” Smith Aközbek said. “In addition to producing excellent research, my goal is to harness this opportunity to open doors for the next generation of scientists through service and mentorship.”

Emma M. Rhodes, originally from Foley, Alabama, received her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from COSAM and is working toward her doctorate in biological sciences. Rhodes’ research is titled “Mitochondria Power the Evolution of Bird Migration.”

“The physiological mechanisms that enable bird migration have been of interest to researchers for many decades,” Rhodes said. “However, while some of the whole-organism and tissue-specific adaptations have been described, the energetics of migration and the role mitochondria play remains an enigma. I am interested in understanding how mitochondria powers bird migration and its role in the evolution of migration.”

Her research professors are Wendy Hood, associate professor of biology, and Geoffrey Hill, professor and curator of birds, both with COSAM.

“I am beyond thrilled and honored to be a recipient of the NSFGRF,” Rhodes said. “I cannot wait to discover novel mechanisms of migration with the support of NSF.”

Lindsey E. Parsons and Hannah Brien, both Auburn graduates, received the NSFGRF for their respective universities.

“This is a truly transformative opportunity for students who are starting careers in research, and we are so happy that Auburn students are continuing to be recognized for their amazing work,” said Alex Sauer, coordinator for scholarships and research with the Honors College. “We are also so grateful for the time and effort that advisors, mentors and recommenders have dedicated to supporting these students. Nationally competitive awards are never won solely by any one individual’s efforts.”

The NSFGRF program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. For more information, go to or contact Sauer at

The Honors College at Auburn University is designed to provide a select cohort of high-ability students a means to experience, explore, engage and elevate their academic dreams. The college offers four types of graduation distinctions, smaller class sizes, priority registration, undergraduate research and internship opportunities, study and travel experiences, access to graduate-level courses, peer tutoring sessions, flexible curriculums and designated Honors housing and study areas. Students engage in an academically challenging set of courses and programs to provide a deeper understanding of the class material.

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