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USM Students, Alum Earn Prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships

Fri, 04/22/2022 - 10:43am | By: Van Arnold

Alyssa Necaise, Zachary Ahmad, Jessalyn Davis, and Sarah Monica

In order: Alyssa Necaise, Zachary Ahmad, Jessalyn Davis, and Sarah Monica

Three current University of Southern Mississippi (USM) students and one recent graduate have been awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

The group includes Zachary Ahmad, Alyssa Necaise and Sarah Monica, all current students and members of the USM Honors College. Jessalyn Davis, a 2020 USM graduate and Honors College student, earned the award as she currently pursues a doctorate at the University of Rhode Island.

“All of these students are examples of success breeding success as well as non-traditional paths to scholarships,” said Dr. David Skelton, Assistant Director for Nationally Competitive Programs and Awards at USM. “While Nationally Competitive Programs helped shepherd their applications across the finish line, the Honors College was vital in shaping their early drafts along with their faculty mentors and the broader USM science community. It takes a university team effort to cultivate fellowship success, and I am thankful that we have that environment at USM.”

Dr. Karen Coats, Dean of USM’s Graduate School, points out that the National
Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is a highly competitive award that provides an annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost of education allowance for three years to students pursuing master’s and doctoral degree programs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or STEM education fields. Overall, the award funds 20 percent of all basic research conducted by U.S. college and universities with approximately 2,000 fellowships awarded annually.

“Applicants must submit a personal statement, a research plan, transcripts, and letters of reference, so winning this award demonstrates that along with excellent academic credentials, these students already are developing important grant-writing skills that will benefit them in their graduate programs and careers,” said Coats. “Our awardees will study polymer science and engineering, marine geology/geophysics, and chemical engineering either here at USM or at other prestigious institutions. Whether continuing their education here or elsewhere, these students will represent USM well.”

Ahmad is a polymer science and engineering major from Richton, Miss. He is a Barry Goldwater Scholar, a Ronald McNair Scholar and Honors Scholar. Ahmad is scheduled to begin his graduate degree program in material science at the California Institute of Technology in the fall of this year.

“This award will allow me the freedom to explore the research that I find meaningful without worrying about funding,” he said. “Additionally, this recognition will set me apart from my peers in graduate school and represents the dedication to research ethics and scientific creativity that I will maintain throughout my studies.”

Ahmad is a first-generation student who initially enrolled at USM in 2014, before withdrawing to help his family after they suffered significant health and financial setbacks. In 2018, he re-enrolled at USM with a dedication to pursue a branch of science that might impact medical devices and sensors that could help people such as his family members.

“I was not particularly proficient in mathematics or chemistry before college, but the faculty and staff at Southern Miss helped me to develop the skills I needed to be successful in my scientific research,” said Ahmad.

Necaise, a Kiln, Miss., native, will begin her graduate degree program in polymer science and engineering at USM later this year.

“I am very thankful to be among such a distinguished group of students. I appreciate everyone along my journey who has contributed to my success as a student and growing professional,” said Necaise. “The relationships I have established along the way have been the most rewarding aspect of my education, and I am forever in debt to my professors, mentors, and classmates. I could not have achieved this recognition without them. I am thankful to my mother who instilled in me valuable work ethic principles, faith and character which has continually added to my success and perseverance.”

Necaise became interested in polymer science while a student at Hancock High School. After earning her pre-requisite class credits at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, she transferred to USM.

She adds: “I look forward to being a representative of first-generation, community college transfer, and women in STEM success. Anything is possible if you believe in yourself and surround yourself with excellent company.”

Monica, a native of Diamondhead, Miss., earned her undergraduate degree from USM in Earth and Environmental Sciences. She is currently in her second year of a doctoral program at USM in Marine Science with a Geological Oceanography concentration.

“This fellowship significantly impacts the rest of my time in graduate school,” she said. “Not only is this a prestigious award, but it results in more money than my previous graduate stipend. This allows me to continue my paleotempestology research and pursue other interests.”

Monica explains that she is working to develop a record of tropical cyclones during the late Holocene in the western Gulf of Mexico. More broadly, she is interested in learning about the climate of the past through a sedimentological lens.

“I am looking at storm deposits in sediment cores from the inner shelf and using grain-size analysis, gamma spectroscopy, and radiometric dating to characterize the storm events,” said Monica. “I am interested in the potential connection between tropical storms, flood events, and El Niño Southern Oscillation.”

Davis, a Gulfport, Miss., native, earned her degree in Marine Science at USM before beginning her graduate studies at Rhode Island. She enrolled at USM expecting to major in music industry management but an Intro to Oceanography course under Dr. Denis Weisenburg changed her perspective.

“He got me my first lab position, and the field and lab experience I gained hooked me,” said Davis. “I was very thankful for the mentorship that my first PI gave me, but I also knew that the science that really excited me was chemistry. When the time came to complete the Honors College thesis project, I was given the opportunity to work in the lab of Dr. Alan Shiller, a renowned ocean chemist and, to this day, the person who has had the biggest influence in my career.”

Added Davis, “That is when I really found my niche, and what I truly believe to be my calling, which is trace metal chemistry of the oceans.”