U.Va. Graduate Students Earn Coveted NSF Fellowships

By Melissa Maki
NSF Fellows, 2007

Pictured from left to right: Erin Reed, Hillary Schaefer, Jennie Doberne, and Adam Watson (not pictured, Nic Fiorentino)
Photo by Melissa Maki

Five University of Virginia students recently secured highly esteemed National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowships for projects beginning in 2007-08.  The fellows will conduct research on a variety of original topics in a diverse range of fields, from archeology to engineering. 

Each year, the NSF provides financial support to 1,000 students through its highly-regarded Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).  The funding is nationally competitive and geared toward students in the early stages of research-based master’s and doctoral programs. 

Jennie Doberne, first year doctoral student in anthropology, was granted a fellowship based on her proposal to study the cultural and societal impacts of pregnancy among older women in Israel.  Susan McKinnon, associate professor of anthropology, served as Doberne’s advisor this year.  McKinnon shared some of the NSF reviewers’ comments on Doberne’s proposal. “The project's significance is not only in its ability to open up new areas of inquiry, but also to explore emerging issues relating to older motherhood, the new reproductive technologies, nationalism, and pronatalism that are of importance to contemporary society."

Niccolo Fiorentino, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and NSF fellow, works with Silvia Blemker, assistant professor in the department.  Under Blemker’s guidance, Fiorentino is designing computer models of muscle to try to uncover some of the complexities of muscle behaviors.  “I believe that Nic's application stood out because of his fantastic academic background, his impressive and diverse research experiences, and his clear dedication to insuring that his work has broader impact in the scientific and clinical community as well as in promoting diversity in the engineering,” said Blemker.

The Fellows will receive three years of funding which includes a tuition payment as well as a $30,000 per year stipend and $1,000 research allowance.  Through funding graduate research, GRFP seeks to strengthen the U.S. workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.  In addition to the five newest NSF fellows, eleven other students at the University are currently supported by NSF-GRFP fellowships.

Roseanne Ford, associate vice president for research and graduate studies noted, “We are extremely proud of these five students, the quality of their research proposals, and the recognition they bring to their respective programs.”

2007-08 NSF Fellows and Research Descriptions:

Jennie Doberne, Anthropology, Advisor: Susan McKinnon

"My research focuses on older women’s quest for motherhood as a way to investigate the social and technological limits of pronatalism in Israel. By extending technological and medical resources, the national pronatalist effort is eroding previous biological constraints on maternity and enabling older women to become mothers. This project seeks to account for aging within the cultural complexities of the medical and social production of motherhood in Israel."

Niccolo Fiorentino, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Advisor: Silvia Blemker

"I work with Dr. Silvia Blemker in the Multi-scale Muscle Mechanics Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. My research project focuses on characterizing the way muscles change shape during motion, determining how muscles generate force to produce joint movement, and developing methods to model complex muscle behavior. I utilize non-invasive imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study muscle contraction during dynamic joint movement and construct anatomically accurate musculoskeletal models.  I am applying these techniques to understanding and improving the treatments for muscle impairments associated with movement disorders such as cerebral palsy."

Erin Reed, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Advisor: Jim McDaniel

"My research involves using a non-intrusive measurement method called Planar Laser Induced Iodine Fluorescence which involves seeding iodine molecules into a flow and shining a laser sheet across it, causing it to fluoresce or shine allowing us to obtain visuals of the flow as well as velocity and mole fraction measurements.  This method will be applied to a model in hypersonic flow to investigate flow characteristics in a mixed rarefied continuum regime for use in the simulation of a space vehicle entering Mars or Earth atmosphere."

Hillary Schaefer, Psychology, Advisor: Jim Coan

"My research explores the neurobiology of emotion.  For the NSF award, I proposed a study to investigate the brain structures underlying the generation of emotional facial expressions.  Facial expressions represent a vital social communicative system, but the importance of one’s emotional facial expressions for their own emotional states and experiences has not often been explored.  This works aims to connect facial expressions to brain activity as well as other bodily systems such as respiration and heart rate, and explore how people experience and generate facial expressions."

Adam Watson, Archaeology, Advisor: Steve Plog

"I intend to devote my graduate career to the study of long term change in sociopolitical dynamics, resource utilization, ritual, and economy in prehistoric Chaco Canyon. Specifically, I am interested in patterns of social differentiation and integration in this prehistoric Pueblo society. My research will address fundamental questions such as: How has the interrelation of religion, economy, and social organization changed throughout the course of prehistory and thus influenced the trajectory of modern Pueblo society? What was the role of ritual and exchange in the negotiation of increasingly complex internal and external social relations? These questions are critical to the study of social complexity in intermediate societies throughout the world and remain the subject of much debate among scholars of the Pueblo Southwest."