March 24, 2020
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When Anu Muppirala ’19 and her fellow senior neuroscience majors were tasked with writing a research grant last fall for their senior exercise, Muppirala didn’t sweat the assignment. She enjoyed writing about her scientific work, a zeal ignited by a junior-year science-writing course and fueled through Lyceum, a science literary journal she co-founded this year with Graham Ball ’21, Miriam Hyman ’21 and Sarah Jean McPeek ’19. Plus, Muppirala reasoned, this senior exercise would help her and her classmates gain additional practice in grant-writing — a valuable skill for any scientist to have.
But after turning in her assignment, Muppirala decided to take things a step further. She submitted her grant — fortified with a personal statement and a plan for three year’s worth of research experiments — to the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). Six months later, a notice arrived: The NSF had awarded her one of the coveted grants, given to around 2,000 applicants each year.
It is rare for an undergraduate to win one of the fellowships, which are awarded based on an applicant’s potential for significant achievements in future academic and professional careers. (McPeek, a biology major, received an honorable mention, another strong indicator of future success.) The grant comes with a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to recipients’ graduate institutions.
“Having this so early on in my career is really exciting. It’s validating to know, OK: I know how to write something, I know how to think about an experiment and propose an experimental design that’s appropriate for asking certain questions — and I can do it in a way that makes people want to invest in me,” said Muppirala of Cumming, Georgia, who will graduate from Kenyon with highest honors before attending Harvard University next year in pursuit of her doctorate.
“GRFP awards are a national recognition and endorsement of how we teach and train students in the sciences here at Kenyon,” said Sarah Petersen, the Ashby E. Denoon Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, noting Kenyon graduates’ strong history of success with winning the grants. “Kenyon students engage with scientific literature early in their collegiate career, critically analyze data and formulate hypotheses, and even write grant proposals as part of their coursework. Many students also engage in independent research, which allows them to see firsthand how these ‘next questions’ emerge as they work at the frontier of scientific understanding.”
Muppirala credits Petersen with sparking her love for neurobiology. As a member of Petersen’s lab for the past three years, Muppirala worked with zebrafish to investigate how myelination is regulated on a molecular and genetic level. Myelin is a fatty substance that helps insulate neurons and keeps nervous systems functioning properly; learning more about how myelin is produced and damaged could lead to breakthroughs in therapies for neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
“She’s always been a phenomenal mentor,” Muppirala said of Petersen. “She’s always pushed students to formulate their own questions and own their projects and their work. She’s constantly pushed me to the point where I often don’t realize that I’ve been held at this kind of high level.”
In addition to Muppirala, three Kenyon alumni won a GRFP award this year: Myles Alderman ’14, Zach Morrow ’14 and John Zito ’16. In addition to McPeek, four alumni earned honorable mention: Madeline Chellel Frischling ’17, Sarah Mohr ’17, Claire Elizabeth Robertson ’17 and Avery Tishue ’17.