Three URI students and one recent graduate awarded research fellowships from National Science Foundation

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 25, 2023 – Two seniors graduating from the University of Rhode Island this spring, a 2020 graduate, and a current graduate student, have been awarded prestigious fellowships through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships Program.

The Foundation grants winners $12,000 each year for the cost of education, as well as an additional stipend of $37,000 annually for three years which can be applied toward the cost of living and other financial support. The financial support provided by this graduate research fellowship let students focus on their coursework and research.

Caroline Dowling ’23: material matters

Caroline Dowling ’23 will use her NSF fellowship at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she begins her Ph.D. this fall.

Mechanical engineering major Caroline Dowling’s older sister attended URI for pharmacy, so she was familiar with the campus when she arrived. “When I decided I wanted to study engineering, URI’s Fascitelli Center for Advanced Engineering was just being opened. The gorgeous new building along with the University’s engineering programs, the beauty of the campus, and location to the beach made the school unbeatable. And in-state tuition on top of that?! It was a done deal. I loved my choice as I got to experience labs and classes in the new building, live in a beach town with my friends, and see the beauty of the campus each fall.”

The Coventry native will begin her Ph.D. at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in materials science and engineering this fall; Dowling was invited to apply to WPI based on the strength of her undergraduate work.

At URI, Dowling worked in the school’s Dynamic Photomechanics Laboratory and gained a real appreciation for research there. As a senior, Dowling also worked on a capstone design project for NASA which she says tested everything she knew about being an engineer.

Dowling says URI helped her develop as a person. She also credits Lucas Milhaupt in Warwick, where she worked part-time while in school, with helping her discover her passion for materials science.

Dowling won an Undergraduate Academic Excellence Award in her major.

Hailey Hendricks ’23: chemist in the making

Hailey Hendricks will begin her Ph.D. at Princeton University this August, studying the interface of organic and organometallic chemistry.

“As a native Rhode Islander, URI was the smartest financial decision for my undergraduate studies,” she states. Hendricks began pursuing research opportunities in her first year at URI and has worked in a University research lab since 2020. She says that the hands-on experience she gained working in Matthew Kiesewetter’s lab, mentored by Kassie Picard, has been invaluable. “Participating in research has been the highlight of my time at URI,” she says.

Hendricks has been interested in science her entire life, sparked by tagging along with her mother to classes at CCRI when she was just in first grade. “My experience as a 6-year-old in her geology class, ‘The Earth Through Time,’ was the moment I knew I would become a scientist,” she recalls. In her senior year at Cumberland High School, she took AP Chemistry and decided to focus on becoming a chemist. Hendricks also completed the URI Honors Program and received an Undergraduate Academic Excellence Award in her major.

“I’m excited to begin graduate school to fulfill my true scientific potential,” she says. Eventually she hopes to pursue a career in industry, working at the forefront of the drug discovery process.

Bryan Plankenhorn, Ph.D. candidate: oceanography

Bryan Plankenhorn is a first-generation indigenous graduate student, from the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe in Washington, pursuing a Ph.D. in oceanography. His research focuses on harmful algal blooms (HABs) which produce dangerous neurotoxins impacting sea life.

“I have always resonated deeply with my tribal identity,” says Plankenhorn. As an undergraduate, he worked with the Lummi Nation tribe in an environmental outreach program for younger students. At the same time, one of the worst harmful algal blooms (HABs) was occurring in the Pacific Ocean, resulting in devastating consequences to marine wildlife.

“I saw firsthand how this event negatively impacted many coastal tribal communities as a result of their families unable to fish and collect shellfish because they contained potent neurotoxins from bioaccumulation of HAB species,” says Plankenhorn. He decided to make HABs the focus of his study and hopes to help find ways to protect the environment and nearby communities, while also mentoring tribal students pursuing STEM degrees.

Plankenhorn conducts weekly sampling and analysis of Narragansett Bay plankton, as part of GSO’s long-term plankton time series, the longest time series of its kind in the world.

He is treasurer for URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography Chowder & Marching graduate group and vice president for URI’s Native American Student Organization. He’s also led workshops at URI on Native American data sovereignty and advocacy for underrepresented communities.

NSF recognizes recent alumni

With a father in the Navy, Alyssa Lopez ’20 spent a childhood on the move. Through all of her family’s moves, Lopez always hoped their next port of call was one near the ocean.

A 2020 graduate in marine biology, Honors program graduate, and Undergraduate Academic Excellence Award winner, Lopez will head to Oregon State University in September to do her master’s degree in wildlife science, studying killer whale acoustics off the coast of Washington.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I have been passionate about the ocean and marine life,” she says. Lopez had her sights set on URI once she started high school: “URI was close to family and had the perfect marine biology program where I could gain extensive marine biology knowledge and research experience.” She made the best use of that time at the University, spending a week aboard the R/V Endeavor researching right whale foraging areas and studying tropical marine biology in Bermuda.

After graduation, Lopez traveled to Alaska to work as a fisheries observer on commercial fishing vessels. For the past three years, she’s sampled catches, studied species composition, collected specimens, and monitored regulation compliance. “I have learned the difficulties of working independently, not only in inclement weather and high seas, but in tight quarters,” she says, “and built valuable relationships with the crews by teaching them about fish species and talking about my plans for conserving marine life while benefiting their industry.”

Two URI alumni, now at other institutions, also received Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation.

Erin Frates ’20 (cell and molecular biology, Honors Program graduate) is now at Boston University, studying environmental microbiology. At URI, Frates was a RI EPSCOR summer undergraduate research fellow, an academic tutor, and a research assistant. Frates now studies microbial communities at Boston University.

Jada Garzon ’19 (cell and molecular biology) is working toward her Ph.D. degree in chemical and systems biology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

URI also had three honorable mentions in the competitive process: Willow Dunster ’23, winner of the 2023 Undergraduate Academic Excellence Award for marine biology; Kyrsten Weissheier ’21, now a Ph.D. candidate at Boston College; and Caroline Caton, a current master’s student in biological and environmental sciences