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STEM Renown: Seven Aggies Honored in NSF Grad Research Fellow Search

Thursday, Apr. 14, 2011

NSF Grad Research Fellow recipient Bradley Hintze

Bradley Hintze, biochemistry and structural biology

Sarah Isert, NSF Grad Research Fellow recipient

Sarah Isert, mechanical and aerospace engineering

Justin Koeln, NSF Grad Research Fellow recipient

Justin Koeln, mechanical and aerospace engineering

Zach Portman, NSF Grad Research Fellow recipient

Zach Portman, biology

Four Utah State University Aggies received 2011 Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation and three more received honorable mentions in a renowned competition that rewards academic excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

USU’s 2011 NSF Graduate Research Fellows are undergraduate seniors Sarah Isert and Justin Koeln, both mechanical and aerospace engineering majors; 2009 USU biochemistry graduate Bradley Hintze, who is currently pursuing doctoral studies in structural biology at Duke University; and Zachary Portman, a 2009 graduate of New York’s Union College who will begin graduate studies in insect taxonomy at USU this fall. Isert completes concurrent enrollment bachelor’s and master’s degrees at USU this fall and Koeln, who graduates this spring, is bound for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Receiving honorable mentions are USU graduate students Zack Brym (ecology) and James Fishelson (civil engineering), as well as 2009 USU graduate Brad Tuft (biological engineering), who is pursuing graduate studies in chemical engineering at the University of Iowa.

“NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are the nation’s most prestigious graduate awards in science and engineering,” said USU President Stan Albrecht. “The fact that seven Aggies are among this year’s honorees is a solid testament to the outstanding quality of our university’s academic and research programs, as well as the high caliber of our students and faculty.”

NSF GRFP recipients receive a three-year annual stipend of $30,000, along with a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees, a one-time $1,000 international travel allowance and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. or foreign institution of graduate education they choose. 

Bradley Hintze, Biochemistry and Structural Biology

Building on x-ray crystallography techniques and biochemical analysis skills he honed with faculty mentor Sean Johnson at USU, Hintze continues research in deciphering minute biological structures and mechanisms.

“The only way we can get a ‘picture’ of important large biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins is through x-ray crystallography,” says Hintze, who received USU’s Legacy of Utah State Award in 2008. “Unfortunately, these large molecules typically yield low-resolution data, which makes structure determination difficult. My goal is to take what’s been learned about molecular structure determination over the past 50 years and apply it to low-resolution data.”

Learning about the structure of these large molecules is critical, he says, for understanding biological processes and designing new drugs.

In addition to his NSF accolade, Hintze is a finalist for a National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award.

While a strong supporter of Duke’s Blue Devils, Hintze, an avid sports, cycling and hiking enthusiast, remains a true blue Aggie fan.

“Utah State is still my favorite team,” he says.

Sarah Isert, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Isert’s resume reads like that of a seasoned aerospace engineer, rather than a college student.

The Honors fellow was appointed chief engineer for her department’s Lunar and Planetary Surface Landing Research Vehicle senior design project. Off campus, she’s served as a technical intern for Northrop Grumman since 2009, where she’s studied Minuteman missile guidance systems and propulsion stage rocket engines.

“At USU, I led 26 students in designing, building and testing a small-scale lunar land vehicle prototype,” Isert says. “Because of this and my internship, I had the opportunity to participate as a research assistant in the summer 2010 NASA Propulsion Academy at Alabama’s Marshall Flight Center.”

At the academy, she was team lead for a rocket thruster test firing project. Isert was invited to return to the academy this summer as operations manager. Her duties will include organizing tours, speakers and activities for this year’s research assistants.

“My ultimate goal is to become an astronaut,” says Isert, an alumna of USU’s GAS team and a private pilot. “Until then, I want to be a propulsion engineer.”

Following graduation from USU, Isert, who enjoys flying, sports, historical swordfighting, reading and sewing in her “infrequent” spare time, plans to pursue doctoral studies.

Justin Koeln, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Yep, that was Koeln you saw floating in microgravity and hoisting a “We Puke for Science” sign as a member of USU’s Get Away Special team that flew a successful heat transfer experiment aboard NASA’s ‘Vomit Comet’ last summer. The Maryland native was the team’s experiment leader and is a key mentor to a new team returning to NASA this June.

Koeln’s list of academic achievements and awards is long and impressive. The 2010 Goldwater Scholar was named 2010-11 Outstanding Senior for USU’s MAE Department and was the department’s Undergraduate Researcher of the Year for 2009-10. Walk into the basement labs of USU’s Science Engineering Research building and you’ll understand why: Koeln can be found toiling away most evenings and weekends. His father, says Koeln, follows a family motto: “All things cometh to he who waiteth, if he worketh like hell while he waiteth.”

In addition to encouragement from his parents, Koeln credits faculty advisors Heng Ban, J.R. Dennison and Jan Sojka with motivating him “to perform to the best of my abilities.”

“These professors invest so much of their time and effort in assisting students,” he says. “They’ve spent hours with me discussing research and my personal career path.”

At Illinois, Koeln will use research knowledge he’s gained at USU to pursue U.S. Air Force-funded study of heat transfer and thermodynamics in the design of future generation fighter jets.

Zachary Portman, Biology

News stories describing the honey bee and its decline due to the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder and other factors abound. Implications are chilling, as an estimated third of the human food supply is dependent pollination by honey bees and other pollinating insects.

“There’s a lot of fear and misinformation about the collapse of honey bees and other pollinators, and while this certainly is a danger and something to be concerned about, it’s stunning how little is known about pollinators,” says Portman, who received Union College’s 2009 Loughry Prize for the best senior research project. “Much more study needs to be dedicated to this topic and that’s one of the reasons I want to continue to study bees.”

At USU, he’ll study the taxonomy and systematics of bees.

“Bascially, that means describing species and organizing them based on their evolutionary relationships,” says Portman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and computer science. 

The entomologist says he chose USU because of its research collaborations with Logan’s USDA Agricultural Research Service Pollinating Insects Lab.

“My future advisor Terry Griswold is an extremely talented scientist and my other advisor, Carol von Dohlen, will provide expertise on the modern genetic methods that are becoming so important in modern-day taxonomic research,” Portman says.

This year’s honorees join 23 Aggies who have received fellowships and 25 USU students who have received honorable mentions since 1999.

Related links:

Contact: Joyce Kinkead, 435-797-,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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