NSF Fellowships 2017

Two Benedictine Seniors Awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Published: Wednesday, April 12, 2017

In a rare occurrence for a small, private college, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Graduate Research Fellowships to two Benedictine College students within the same discipline. Laura Tibbs and Bienvenido “Ben” Cortes, both senior Biology majors, were separately awarded the fellowships after competing against more than 13,000 others in the demanding process. These awards will provide the students with stipends and research funding through three years of graduate studies.

"This unique program has nurtured economic innovation and leadership in the U.S. continuously since 1952 -- by recruiting and supporting outstanding students with high potential in science, technology, engineering and mathematics very early in their graduate training," said Jim Lewis, NSF acting assistant director for Education and Human Resources. "These talented individuals have gone on to make important discoveries, win Nobel Prizes, train many generations of American scientists and engineers and create inventions that improve our lives."

“Laura Tibbs and Ben Cortes truly possess outstanding intellects and habits of mind,” said Dr. Terrence Malloy, professor and chair of the Benedictine College Department of Biology. “They are critical, aggressive learners, and two of the best students I have seen in twenty years of teaching undergraduates.  These NSF fellowships are well placed investments in the scientific contributions that Laura and Ben will bring to the world.  There is no doubt in my mind that they will deliver. It has been a great privilege to work with them and to know them.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind. The reputation of the fellowship often helps recipients become life-long leaders who contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching. Tibbs may already have taken a step in that direction, having potentially discovered a new species of microscopic tardigrades, known as the water bear, in the course of her research.

"We collected 29 moss and lichen samples in Iowa,” she said. “From those we pulled 558 tardigrades, including 80 eggs. We identified all of those and ended up finding seven different species. They are all new records for the state of Iowa, and in fact, two of the species haven't been described at all. One of them is actually under description by a professor at another school. Then one of them I think is completely new. Of course, that's still yet to be determined."

The research project she submitted for the NSF fellowship involved tardigrades as carriers of plant disease.

“My research proposal involved tardigrades as vectors of bacterial crop disease; that is, they could carry bacteria from one plant to another, spreading disease,” said Tibbs. “I found older research, but I couldn’t find any studies done on the topic in the last 15 years, and it could be important because Xanthomonas, the genus of bacteria the tardigrades carried in the earlier studies, infects staple food crops such as rice and wheat.” 

“It means a lot to me to get this award, both for graduate school and beyond,” she said. “In graduate school, it gives me the flexibility to choose almost any school, mentor and research project rather than being limited by funding. This fellowship will also allow me to focus on my research and studies during graduate school, rather than having to divide time between working to support myself and studying.”

Cortes echoed those sentiments, noting that the fellowship provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period ($34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution). The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based Master's and Doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. Seniors, first year and second year graduate students apply for this fellowship from colleges and universities all over the nation. 

“I'm very honored to have been chosen to receive such a prestigious fellowship,” Cortes said. “It's good to know that my tuition and fees in graduate school will be paid for three years. I hope that the freedom the financial benefits give me will enable me to focus more on my research and on gaining teaching experience.”

Cortes’ research focused on proteins within bacteria and how they affect human ability to resist them.

“In my proposal, I suggested methods that would help determine how a certain protein is positioned in the bacterial cell membrane and how this affects its function as a sensor,” Cortes said. “I also proposed a method to explain how the protein changes shape upon sensing a signal. Both the protein and the pathway in which it is involved are important because they help the bacteria resist our defenses against them. One of the bacteria that has this protein is Clostridium difficile, a bacterium which can cause serious gastrointestinal disease in the sick and elderly.”

Since 2012, Dr. Gail Blaustein, associate professor in the Benedictine College Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, has been an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship panelist, responsible for evaluating submissions in the area of chemistry. She has seen the rigor that goes into the submissions and advised Tibbs on her essays.

“Two essays are submitted by each applicant,” said Blaustein. “These are the most important parts of the application.  One essay is the personal statement, and the other essay is the research statement. Together, they provide a picture of the applicant as a person, a scientist and a leader.  Of course, all applicants put countless hours into carefully crafting their essays, but the winning essays contain critical components that communicate significant intellectual merit and broader impacts of the proposed research as well as project the high likelihood that the research will be completed successfully.”

She noted how impressive it was to have two students selected from the same department at an institution the size of Benedictine College.

“As a scientist who has also served as a panelist for the NSF-GRF, I am acutely aware of the significance that two 2017 winners of this highly competitive fellowship are students at our small (but mighty) college,” said Blaustein. “This award is very prestigious and reflects extremely well on Laura and Ben, the science program at Benedictine College and the college itself.”

NSF Fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering. These individuals are crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation's technological infrastructure and national security as well as contributing to the economic well-being of society at large.

“Only 2,000 of the more than 13,000 reviewed proposals are awarded funding across all NSF-supported science fields,” said Dr. Virginia Winder, assistant professor in the Benedictine College Department of Biology and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship panelist in Biology. “Many congratulations to Ben and Laura, who will take this funding award with them to their top choice graduate programs.”

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas.  The school is proud to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report as well as one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide.  It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging.  It has a mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.