March 23, 2017  

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Two Southern Miss Students Earn NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

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The University of Southern Mississippi has produced 16 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows since 2007.

University of Southern Mississippi graduate students Jeremy Johnson and Grover Brown are following in a lengthy line of successful scholarship winners at the University as recipients of 2016 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

The fellowships cover three years of funding. Students receive a $34,000 stipend every year as well as a $12,000 cost of attendance allowance tenable at any university in the country. NSF Graduate Research Fellows are selected on the basis of their academic merit as well as their potential for broader impact on the greater scientific community and society as a whole.

Approximately 17,000 students applied for the fellowships this year, an increase of 2,000 from 2015. The University has now produced 16 NSF Graduate Research Fellows since 2007 which represents more than $2.5 million in funding to the awardees.

“Our NSF results for several years are included in our national rankings. That we continue to lead the state in this prestigious award speaks volumes about the caliber of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) students we are attracting, the research opportunities available to them and the strength of the faculty mentorship they receive,” said Robyn Curtis, director, Nationally Competitive Awards at Southern Miss.

Johnson, a Biloxi, Miss., native, is a first-year graduate student in the Department of Coastal Sciences. Brown, a native of Cartersville, Ga., is a second-year graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences. Both expressed awe and appreciation at being awarded the prestigious fellowships.

“I was shocked. I worked on my application for several weeks, and I felt that I had done some of my best writing, but there are so few NSF fellowships awarded that I did not have any real expectation to actually receive the award,” said Johnson. “When I read the acceptance letter and everything finally did set in, I screamed so loud that I woke up the whole house.”

“The e-mail notification came in around 4 a.m. and my stomach naturally dropped when I saw the title from NSF,” said Brown. I couldn’t bring myself to open it right away. But when I ultimately did open the e-mail, I was genuinely shocked to read that I had been selected. And, as promised, the first person I called and told was my mom.”

Brown received his undergraduate degree in Ecology from the University of Georgia where he graduated with an almost perfect GPA. An affinity for turtles led him to the Southern Miss Department of Biological Sciences, and ultimately to working in the labs of professors Carl Qualls and Brian Kreiser.

“I’ve been crazy about turtles for as long as I can remember,” said Brown. “It’s a little known fact that the Southeastern United States is No. 2 in the world in terms of turtle diversity, and South Mississippi in particular has some of the highest diversity in the Southeast. But there are still a number of species that have never been well-studied, and that is why Southern Miss was a natural fit for me.”

Brown’s research involves genetic examination of two species – razorback and stripe-necked musk turtles – to determine levels of population structure across their ranges and the evolutionary history of the two species in their narrow range of overlap.

“The results could ultimately be used to conserve these species as hundreds of thousands of wild-caught adults are currently being shipped to Asian markets annually for consumption or for the illegal pet trade,” said Brown. “This data will be important for state and federal agencies in developing appropriate management and conservation plans for each species.”

While Brown may have been stunned to learn of his NSF fellowship, mentors Qualls and Kreiser were not the faintest bit surprised by the news.

“He put together a very strong application, with a clever and novel research proposal, and was successful despite very substantial competition,” said Qualls. “What sets Grover apart is largely his energy and enthusiasm. He has a deep interest in his research and study of organisms, and pursues his research with seemingly boundless energy.”

Echoed Kreiser: “Already Grover is functioning more like a recently minted Ph.D. rather than a beginning graduate student. Not only is his science sound and programmatic, but he also connects it to the broader picture of conservation and outreach.”  

Johnson served on active duty in the U.S. Army for 15 years before transitioning to the Army Reserve in 2011. He earned his undergraduate degree in Marine Biology at the Southern Miss Gulf Park campus in 2014. He has been conducting graduate research under the guidance of Dr. Robert J. Griffitt, interim chair and associate professor in the Department of Coastal Sciences.

Johnson’s research focuses on the effects of low levels of pharmaceuticals in wastewater on aquatic organisms – primarily targeting the effects of Lipitor in the development of frogs from tadpoles to adulthood.

“My model species is the Western African Clawed Frog,” said Johnson. “They are widely used in developmental biology and make a perfect model for studying the development toxicity for pharmaceuticals. The global extinction of frogs has been a known problem for quite some time, and it is my hope that my research will provide a greater understanding of the toxic effects of anthropogenic wastewater runoff on aquatic organisms.”

Griffitt has reviewed numerous NSF Graduate Research Fellowship proposals during his tenure at Southern Miss. He knows first-hand how competitive the application process can be.

“The fact that Jeremy got one speaks volumes about his passion, drive, and obvious desire to make a career in coastal science,” said Griffitt. “The project that he proposed is very interesting and innovative, and should be of high interest to the ecotoxicology research community. All of the reviewers spoke highly of the amount of thought and preparation that had clearly gone into his proposal.”

To learn more about the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships, visit: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=138123&org=NSF&from=news. For information about national scholarship and awards at Southern Miss, contact the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards at 601.266.4533 or visit: https://www.usm.edu/honors/office-nationally-competitive-awards