Westminster alums awarded National Science Foundation fellowships

April 15, 2021

by Vanessa Eveleth (’23)

Westminster alums and former US ski team athletes Jess Breda (’18) and Avery Driscoll (’18) were awarded funding for their graduate research through the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The five-year fellowship provides an annual stipend of $34,000 and an allowance of $12,000 towards their chosen graduate school.

This funding not only makes graduate school attainable but offers Jess and Avery flexibility and independence throughout their research. However, receiving this support isn’t easy. Jess and Avery both utilized their Westminster advisors and education during the fellowship application process.

Jess Breda

Jess Breda

Princeton University graduate student Jess received the fellowship for life sciences with the distinction in neurosciences. Dr. Krista Todd, Jess’s advisor and neuroscience professor at Westminster, strongly supported Jess during her time as an undergraduate student and as she applied for the NSF fellowship. “Krista had a huge role in shaping me as a writer—and in science in general,” Jess says. “She always pushed me to be a better writer.”

Jess learned the behind-the-scenes of research by working in Krista’s lab. “Working in the lab gives a new perspective of how much goes into getting all the supplies you need and planning experiments down the line,” Jess says. “And it taught me how to be more independent as a scientist, which is crucial in graduate school.”

Westminster’s encouragement of outreach and getting out into the world impacted Jess’s fellowship application. “The NSF really rewards people for being well-rounded scientists,” she says. “Westminster promotes its students as full, whole humans as opposed to facets of their major.”

Jess is currently researching the working memory in mice and rats in the lab of Dr. Carlos Brody at Princeton. She studies how sensory areas like the auditory cortex are involved in the complex task of working memory while comparing that research across species.

Avery Driscoll

Avery Driscoll

Avery received the National Science Foundation fellowship for her research proposal in life sciences with ecology as the classification. Avery currently works in a staff position as a research technician with Dr. Jim Ehleringer at the University of Utah, where she studies desert plants and how they adapt to climate change. She will attend graduate school in the fall of 2021 at Colorado State University, where she will major in soil and crop sciences and work in Dr. Nathan Mueller’s lab. The driving question she hopes to answer is: How can we make our agricultural systems resilient to climate change?

Dr. Christy Clay, Avery’s advisor and a biology and environmental studies professor at Westminster, guided Avery in her passion for agricultural sustainability. Avery decided to choose a PhD route after Christy helped her see the different career angles in pursuing her passion such as academia, government, industry, and nonprofit sectors. “It took me a while to think about how I could fit into the big network of people working on agricultural sustainability,” Avery says. “Christy helped me settle on a research path rather than a policy path.”

Avery also received valuable experience from working as a research technician for Christy during her senior year. “I gained a lot of skills that ended up being really useful for me getting a job out of college and that will continue to be useful for me as I start grad school,” Avery says. She points to data analysis, understanding the research process, and keeping other influences such as social or economic issues in mind during her research as some of the specific skills that she gained during her time working in Christy’s lab.

Avery says that some of the agricultural research being conducted is disconnected from the realities of farming. Luckily, Westminster provided opportunities for her to contextualize her science in real-world applications. One example that Avery recalls is the Urban Agriculture field study class taught by Christy centered around visiting farms. “It was really important for me to be able to start to understand what farmers are actually doing, what their lives are like, and what they need,” Avery says. “I want my work to be driven by what farmers can actually use.”