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Two alumni earn prestigious graduate fellowship

April 15, 2020

University of North Georgia (UNG) alumna Donna "Katie" McCullough remembered hearing about a National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate program as an undergraduate student and thought about applying for it. However, when she won the prestigious scholarship with the Fulbright U.S. Student Program for research in Poland in 2017, it was pushed to the recesses of her mind.

"Then two weeks before it was due last semester, a friend reminded me about the fellowship application," McCullough said. "I thought, 'That's what I am going to do. It can't hurt me to apply.' Then I frantically started writing."

Her frantic writing paid off as it did for another UNG alumnus. McCullough and Cory Duckworth, both with Bachelor of Science degrees in biology, earned the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program award. McCullough, a December 2016 graduate from Ringgold, Georgia, and Duckworth, a December 2019 graduate from Hiawassee, Georgia, each will receive up to $134,000 in funding for research purposes.

"A mentor told me that the NSF funds the researcher, not the research," said McCullough, who is in her second year of a doctoral program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "By awarding me this grant, it means the NSF believes in me enough to give me money for my tuition and living expenses; that they will support me while I get my degree."

Duckworth, a former U.S. Army medic and UNG McNair Scholar, said he was shocked when he read the email, especially since he found it in the spam folder.

"I had learned with my applications for Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) that I should be confident, but I was still surprised to get it," he said.

The surprise happened at the quintessential moment. That same morning, Duckworth received a letter of intent from the University of Pittsburgh's graduate program in biology, ecology and evolution.

"I was wait-listed at every graduate program that I applied to, even Pittsburgh," he said. "Now, I'm going to grad school and have the money in place. It's been a goal of mine to get into a Ph.D. program, and it worked."

This marks the second consecutive time a UNG student or graduate has received this highly competitive and prestigious award. Last year, Caroline Brown became the first UNG student to earn it.

Dr. Andy Novobilski, associate provost for research and engagement and chief research officer, said this award is one of the National Science Foundation's prestigious programs for investing in the future of research and scholarship in the United States.

"The awards are an affirmation of Ms. McCullough and Mr. Duckworth's commitment to excellence as recognized at the national level," he said.

Dr. Anastasia Lin, assistant vice president of research and engagement at UNG, said roughly 16% of applicants nationwide received the award this year.

"The NSF GRFP is notoriously hard won," she said. "Having two alumni win the honor this year reflects the hard work and academic excellence of our students as well as the impressive undergraduate research opportunities provided by UNG faculty."

Two alumna and one current student received honorable mentions from NSF GRFP.

  • Nathan Clement, a senior pursuing a degree in chemistry, is an S-STEM Scholar from Peshtigo, Wisconsin. In spring 2019, he earned an REU at Clemson University in South Carolina.
  • Lily Rainwater Diodati, a May 2018 graduate with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, worked with Dr. Aimee Tomlinson in a few undergraduate research projects and had a paper published. She is a graduate researcher at the University of Florida.
  • Lydia Nicole Skolrood from Flowery Branch, Georgia, graduated in May 2018 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. She conducted research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in summer 2018 after earning entry into a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program, which is sponsored and managed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The GRFP recipients and honorable mentions were involved in undergraduate research at UNG.

Students interested in learning more about nationally competitive scholarships, including the NSF GRFP and other opportunities for graduate funding, should contact ncs@ung.edu for more information.

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