News Release

PhD students first in university's history to receive prestigious DOE awards

Program prepares students for STEM careers critically important to DOE mission

Grant and Award Announcement

Northern Arizona University

Graduate students Maria Bolar and Megan Foley are the first from Northern Arizona University to receive awards from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through its Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) program. Only 65 graduate students from across the country were recognized this year. Through world-class training and access to state-of-the-art facilities and resources at DOE national laboratories, the program prepares graduate students to enter jobs of critical importance to the DOE mission and secures the nation’s position at the forefront of discovery and innovation.

The goal of SCGSR is to prepare graduate students for science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) careers critically important to the DOE Office of Science mission, by providing research opportunities through extended residency at DOE national laboratories. The program provides funding for the students to spend 3 to 12 months onsite at a DOE national laboratory conducting graduate thesis research in a priority research area, side by side with a DOE scientist. The projects they work on are expected to advance each student’s overall doctoral thesis while providing access to the expertise, resources and capabilities available at the DOE labs.

“The DOE Office of Science provides the scientific foundation for solutions to some of our nation’s most complex challenges, and now more than ever we need to invest in a diverse, talented pipeline of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who can help us build a brighter future,” said  Harriet Kung, Deputy Director for Science Programs in the Office of Science. “These outstanding students will help us tackle mission-critical research at our labs as this experience helps them begin a successful and rewarding career.”

Bolar to study fundamental electrochemistry for chemical and materials sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Working on her PhD in Applied Physics and Materials Science, Bolar has been performing research with NAU professor Cindy Browder and her lab group in the Department of Applied Physics and Materials Science (APMS), investigating the physical properties of polymer electrolytes for use in energy storage devices such as supercapacitors. “Using organic chemistry, we have the ability to tune these electrolytes,” Bolar explained, “and we have synthesized a variety of different polymer precursors using several different polymerization methods. As we modify these molecules, it is important to keep in mind how these changes affect the dynamics of the polymers and the movements of the ions.”

Bolar’s DOE award of $12,000 will enable her to work with senior staff scientist Gabriel Veith at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee for four months.

“At ORNL, I will be using quasielastic neutron scattering, among other neutron-based techniques, to fully characterize these interesting molecular mechanisms,” Bolar said. “Here at NAU we currently have access to a range of electron microscopy instruments; however, these instruments fail to distinguish smaller atoms that comprise the majority of our electrolytes and are what we are most interested in understanding. The explanations of the polymer dynamics and ion diffusion will help explain the exciting thermal, electrochemical and mechanical trends currently observed as we modify the structure of our polymer electrolytes.”

“I am tremendously excited for this amazing opportunity,” Bolar said. “I am not sure what I am looking forward to more—the fast-paced environment of a national lab, or finally having a molecular understanding of the polymers I have been working with for the past several years. I am proud to be representing the school that serves as both my alma mater and current graduate institution, as well as the rising Applied Physics and Material Science community within NAU.

“I would like to thank everyone that has helped me on this journey, including Dr. Gabriel Montaño, Dr. Jennifer Martinez, Dr. Gerrick Lindberg, Dr. Constantin Ciocanel and most importantly, my advisor and principal investigator of almost five years, Dr. Cindy Browder. I am very lucky to have such a capable team of professionals that are constantly supporting me and challenging me to be the best growing scientist I can be.”

Said Browder, “It has been a pleasure and an honor to work with Maria in her journey from undergraduate researcher to Chemistry MS student and now as an APMS PhD candidate. My lab has benefitted tremendously from Maria’s skills and leadership over the years. Maria has always been resourceful, but she has gone above and beyond by gaining the ability to use neutron scattering techniques to examine our electrolytes at the atomic level. Maria’s award project will benefit the group for years to come, and I couldn’t be more proud of her accomplishment.”

Foley to study environmental microbiology at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Working on her PhD in Biological Sciences, Foley has been studying with Regents’ professor Bruce Hungate in the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, exploring research questions central to her dissertation, such as ‘How does life and death in the soil microbiome drive elemental transformations and contribute to key ecosystem processes?’ and ‘How will all of this be impacted by climate change?’

Foley’s DOE award of $18,000 will enable her to work with senior staff scientist Jennifer Pett-Ridge at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California for six months.

“The work I’ll be doing at LLNL is a component of Dr. Pett-Ridge’s research that looks at how the traits of microorganisms during their life and the composition of their necromass after death matter for how long carbon is sequestered in soils,” Foley explained.

“Soils are earth's largest terrestrial pool of organic carbon, so these research questions are driven by their relevance to carbon cycling and climate change. My project will use metatranscriptomics to analyze how microbial expression of genes involved in carbohydrate depolymerization changes with drought. Overall, we want to understand how changing soil water dynamics, emergent properties of complex soil habitats and microbial trait expression interact to drive carbon transformations.”

“I’m really looking forward to my time at LLNL. Dr. Pett-Ridge has been integral to all of my dissertation work, something that my PhD advisor Dr. Hungate has facilitated and encouraged. The two have been collaborating for years and together bring a creative and quantitative angle to these research questions that really resonate with me and are central to my dissertation, and there’s tremendous synergy between the work being done at NAU and LLNL that is steeped in omics approaches, stable isotope probing and other cutting-edge techniques in quantitative microbial ecology—the heart of which lies in ecosystem ecology. I’m excited to be immersed in the work that the LLNL team is doing and to see how this research gets done at a large DOE-funded national lab.”

Said Hungate, “Megan is amazing. Along with her cutting-edge research, she’s teaching a course on intersectionality in science, bringing the national conversations about equity and access to the science classroom. She’s about to teach another one, too, all about extreme microbes. All of this on top of her research, which is pushing the field of microbial ecology forward. She’s a multi-talented rising star and I’m so proud of her.”

About Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University is a higher-research institution providing exceptional educational opportunities in Arizona and beyond. NAU delivers a student-centered experience to its nearly 30,000 students in Flagstaff, statewide and online through rigorous academic programs in a supportive, inclusive and diverse environment. Dedicated, world-renowned faculty help ensure students achieve academic excellence, experience personal growth, have meaningful research opportunities and are positioned for personal and professional success. 

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