Two Students, One Alum Win NSF Fellowships

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Jeremy Freeman ’08 and Lydia Thé ’08 were recently named two of the 913 recipients of National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowships. Rachel Shorey ’06, currently at UMass Amherst, also received a fellowship. (Last year, nine alums and no students received the grant.) The grant will fund up to three years of graduate programs at a school of the recipient’s choice.

The application involved three essays, including a research proposal; all of which required a great deal of information and had tight word limits. Freeman called them “great practice for preparing graduate school applications.” Then a panel of scientists judged applicants based on their intellectual merit: their potential as scientists (based on their previous research), recommendations, grades, GRE scores, and research proposals. The panel also judged based on the “likelihood that they and their science will have an effect on broader communities,” communicate the consequences of their research to the general public, and encourage diversity in science, according to Thé.

Freeman will use his grant to continue his neuroscience studies at NYU’s Ph.D. program. An honors major in neuroscience, a special major combining aspects of biology, psychology, cognitive science, and statistics, his research has “generally revolved around one particular issue: how does the brain integrate visual information to construct perceptual experience?” He says that neuroscience has made great strides in the past thirty years in figuring out the first stage of visual processing, detecting basic features. The second stage of the process, however, is binding elementary features into more complex objects, like letters or faces. According to Freeman, “We really have no idea how this happens.”

Most recently, Freeman used fMRI data in a first-step effort to determine the mechanisms by which the brain recognizes complex objects. He mapped neural activity while showing people letters in various states of recognizability: he found that “correlations between early and higher visual areas” were reduced when the letters were less recognizable, “suggesting that interactions between these areas are mediating the recognition computation.”

At NYU, Freeman plans to continue this research to “further understand this remarkable feat of human vision.” Afterwards, he plans to do a post-doc position and, in the long term, a faculty position in neuroscience at a research university. “If all goes according to plan,” he says, “I’ll be doing this kind of work until I’m 90!”

Thé also does work in the biological sciences, which she will continue at Berkeley’s Molecular and Cell Biology graduate program in the fall. She has studied yeast cell division, particularly the myosin protein’s role, at Swarthmore; and germline development in the worm, at Johns Hopkins.

At Berkeley, she hopes to research the cytoskeleton, which cells use to maintain their shape as well as to move. She says, “I think it is simply a fascinating area of research, but it also has important health implications”: for example, when cancer cells metastasize, they must use the cytoskeleton to move.

Thé hopes to remain in academia, perhaps one day running a research lab herself. She also hopes to contribute in other ways than the purely scientific, however. Her first research experience was at the NYU School of Medicine, where “a generous junior faculty member stood next to [her] and showed [her] how to pipette, mix solutions and interpret bands on a gel.” In that spirit, Thé hopes that, one day when she is running a lab of her own, she will be able to “contribute at least as much” as a mentor, by encouraging interests in science among students, as she could through her own research.

Thé says that receiving the NSF fellowship was a great honor, because it meant that a panel of scientists validated her promise in the field. This kind of encouragement, she said, will certainly help “propel her forward” in her career.

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