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USM Alumna Earns Prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

Thu, 04/01/2021 - 10:01am | By: Van Arnold

Clara EllisRecent University of Southern Mississippi (USM) graduate Clara Ellis has added to her impressive scholarship portfolio as the recipient of a prestigious 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

For the 2021 competition, the National Science Foundation received more than 13,000 applications and presented 2,074 fellowship awards. Ellis is one of just 29 students who received the fellowship in chemistry/chemistry synthesis. She is the 37th USM student to earn the esteemed distinction.

Jaylen Davis, a polymer science doctoral student at USM, received an honorable mention from the fellowship program.

Ellis, who graduated from Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg, Miss., earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry at USM last December. Since that time, she has been contemplating options for graduate school. The fellowship announcement caught her by surprise.

“I honestly could not believe that I had won the fellowship, as roughly 16 percent of applicants who apply for the award receive it,” said Ellis. “My first response was to message Dr. (Matthew) Donahue about my acceptance because I wanted to acknowledge the help he gave me back in October when I submitted my application.”

The NSF GRFP recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution.

Ellis came to USM as a Ronald McNair Scholar and earned a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship in 2019. She says that her immediate objective is to work in an interdisciplinary organic laboratory as a graduate student, so that she may learn different aspects of the research process, while becoming familiar and comfortable in all of them.

Long-term Ellis aspires to work in an industrial research laboratory and emerge as a spokesperson for the research that she provides.

“I want to be able to bridge the gap between ideas and research presented by scientists and the knowledge of the general populace, so that any fears or misinterpretations of the research can be cleaned up and people can view the everyday chemistry that happens in their lives, such as the pharmaceutical research that goes into their medications, with ease,” she said.

Donahue, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at USM, notes that he first met Ellis when she took his organic chemistry course in spring, 2018. He observed that Ellis quickly established herself as an academically strong student in that difficult course. Upon completion of the course, Ellis joined Donahue’s research team in June, 2018.

During that time Ellis made significant contributions to a National Institute of General Medical Sciences grant Donahue acquired: “Asymmetric Synthesis of Bioactive Nitrogen Heterocycles.”

“The focus of this research is to transform simple, commercially available chemicals into architecturally complex molecules to be tested in different biological assays,” said Donahue. “Clara, in particular, worked on the synthesis of six-membered rings containing nitrogen called piperidines. The piperidine scaffold is found in many U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved prescription drugs.”

In Donahue’s lab, Ellis investigated a strategy called metathesis that takes a linear molecule and transforms it into a cyclic one. Her research fellowship is derived from this field of study.

“Over the course of this research, Clara got hands-on experience with state-of-the-art analytical instrumentation, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy,” said Donahue. “A significant component of the research involves proving the structure of the reaction product. Clara was able to use the NMR data to determine that the correct bonds had formed through the reactions.”

Donahue notes that the monetary rewards from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, coupled with Ellis’ solid foundation in laboratory skills, set her up for impending success.

“The sky truly is the limit for Clara now, and I do believe she will make fantastic new discoveries in chemical reactivity,” he said.

To see the complete list of award winners, visit: