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USM Students, Alum Earn Graduate Research Fellowships

Thu, 04/18/2024 - 01:23pm | By: Van Arnold

Three University of Southern Mississippi (USM) students and a recent graduate have been awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships that will provide substantial funding for their continued scientific pursuits.

The awardees include:

  • Damien Cooper, a senior from Batesville, Miss., majoring in chemistry.
  • Carmen Dunn, a second-year doctoral candidate from Lenoir City, Tenn.
  • Zacchaeus Wallace, a senior from Jackson, Miss., majoring in polymer science and engineering.
  • Baylor Lynch, a 2022 USM graduate (conservation biology) from Griffin, Ga.

The purpose of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is to help ensure the quality, vitality, and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States. A primary goal is to broaden participation of the full spectrum of diverse talents in STEM. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Fellowships provide students with a three-year annual stipend of $37,000 along with a $16,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees (paid to the institution), as well as access to opportunities for professional development available to NSF-supported graduate students.

“These students have worked extremely hard to achieve this level of recognition, and we are certainly proud of them and their accomplishments,” said Dr. Chris Winstead, Dean of USM’s College of Arts and Sciences. “I am also very proud of the many faculty that have supported these students along the way. This recognition is a clear sign that our students, with support from an engaged and active faculty, are prepared to succeed at the highest levels. 

Added Winstead: “The fact that we have four awardees, representing three different disciplines in the college, is a great indicator of the depth of talent in both our students and faculty. As a dean, I really couldn’t be prouder. Helping students succeed is why we are here.”

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Cooper works in the lab of Dr. Matthew Donahue, Associate Professor of chemistry and biochemistry. He has been a member of the Donahue Research Group since early 2021. The news of his fellowship caught Cooper completely off-guard.

“I could not believe it when I saw it. I was playing a game with a friend and a lab mate texted me to say the results were out,” said Cooper. “I had never jumped for joy in my life. I remember calling all of my folks and telling them about it. It was of the greatest news I had ever heard.”

Cooper’s research focuses on the synthesis and derivatization of a nitrogen heterocycle called piperidine. This compound is a structural motif found in many pharmaceutical drugs boasting a wide range of uses such as antihistamines, antivirals, antifungals, SSRI’s and more. In the lab, he targets ways to access different parts of the ring by adding and changing the functional groups attached.

Cooper plans to attend Rice University in the fall to pursue a doctorate in chemistry.

“With the help of this NSF fellowship, I will be able to focus on my research full-time and make further advances in the chemical space for the betterment of people worldwide,” said Cooper.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship


Dunn works in the lab of Dr. Zhe Qiang, Assistant Professor of polymer science. She expressed immense gratitude for the opportunity to apply for the fellowship and to ultimately realize that her hard work had paid off.

“More than anything, I was really overwhelmed with appreciation for the people who have supported me to this point,” said Dunn. “Without my PI (Dr. Qiang), my family, my mentors, and my group members, I could not have dreamed of having a shot at this.”

Dunn’s research focuses on sustainable polymer materials. Specifically, she is designing elastic dynamic networks with unique properties. Dunn has also worked with local schools and educators to design demonstrations and presentations to teach the importance of polymer sustainability and research in K-12 classrooms.

Dunn notes that going forward her research focus will shift to designing and implementing dynamic graft blend compatibilizers to potentially improve current recycling methods for polyethylene/polypropylene blends.

“Recycling and upcycling polymer blends is a large challenge for several reasons, and I am looking forward to seeing the potential impact of my work on this widespread issue,” said Dunn.

Wallace works in the lab of Dr. Tristan Clemons, Assistant Professor of polymer science. He described learning the news of his fellowship as a “wow” moment.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

“As soon as I saw the email that morning, I called my parents and celebrated the news with them,” said Wallace. “This recognition is a testament to the time and effort I have dedicated to my success and my mission to better my community and contribute to a growing scientific future.”

Wallace’s research focuses on applying novel therapeutic strategies that reduce the undesirable effects of reactive oxygen species – a major catalyst for conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and many more common disease states.

“My intended field of specialization is transitional research aimed at studying and developing therapies for cancer metastasis and cardiovascular disease, the two most prevalent causes of death in the South and the world,” said Wallace.

Following graduation, Wallace plans to attend Vanderbilt University where he will pursue a doctorate in biomedical engineering.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship


Lynch previously worked in the lab of Dr. Michael Andres, Assistant Professor in the Division of Coastal Sciences, at USM’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. Lynch earned his undergraduate degree in conservation biology in 2022 and currently serves as an outdoor science instructor (K-12) at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

What was Lynch’s reaction to the news he had been awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship?

“Upon opening my phone while half-asleep, an email from NSF instantly jolted me awake, mostly due to anxiety,” said Lynch. “However, after reading I was awarded the fellowship, I called my parents so they could relay the good news to my cat.”

Lynch’s early career research focus has centered on ecology, specifically within marine, estuarine, and riverine ecosystems.

“Throughout my career and into my future graduate studies, I have specialized in utilizing various chemical tracers to understand ecological processes in these environments,” he said.

Lynch plans to use his fellowship funding to pursue a master’s degree in fisheries and aquatic science at the University of Florida. His research focus will be on toxicology, examining the impacts of harmful substances on fish populations and water bodies throughout Florida.

Learn more about the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program and see the full list of awardees.