Graduating with degrees in Molecular & Cellular Biology and Mathematics this Spring, Alyssa Fortier is rocketing off to graduate school at Stanford University, boosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).
“The GRFP supports new graduate students,” Fortier explains. “Since [it] covers both my tuition and stipend, I can be more flexible with the people and projects I work with in graduate school. I am extremely grateful for the award!”
At Stanford this Fall, she will join “one of the world’s strongest research groups in population genetics,” according to MCB Associate Head Ryan Gutenkunst, her mentor.
“Alyssa is an amazing student, and I’m lucky to have her in my research group,” Gutenkunst enthuses. “Being good at school and research isn’t enough to win the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. That fellowship also honors Alyssa’s outreach work. She’s president of MathCats, the UA Mathematics student club, and she’s worked hard to engage UA students in tutoring refugee children. Alyssa has a bright future ahead of her, and all of MCB can take credit for drawing this brilliant student toward a career in scientific research.”
Fortier wasn’t focused on a research career when she began her studies at UA. However, working with Dr. Molly Bolger as part of HNRS 299 (Honors Independent Study) changed that. Once ignited, Fortier’s passion for science shone through.
“Alyssa worked on a number of projects, demonstrating great curiosity, intelligence, and flexibility,” Gutenkunst describes Fortier’s time in the lab. “She settled into a population genetic project focused on inferring natural selection from genome sequences. We’re hoping to write up the paper this summer.”
Fortier, who also minored in Computer Science and Biochemistry, plans to continue studying population genetics as part of the Ecology and Evolution track in Stanford’s Biology program.
“I plan to rotate with Dr. Noah Rosenberg, Dr. Jonathan Pritchard, and Dr. Marc Feldman, all of whom study computational population genetics,” Fortier’s excitement is palpable. “I am mainly interested in developing methodology that will allow other researchers to more easily solve complicated problems, such as evolutionary questions involving genetically peculiar populations.”
Fortier also plans to continue her volunteer work.
“While I'm in graduate school, I also plan to tutor high-school and undergraduate students as well as support other women in math and computing through national organizations,” she notes.
As she looks towards the future, Fortier emphasizes the importance of her experience at UA.
“In MCB, I have had amazing faculty interactions,” Fortier says. “Every professor I have had has been kind, friendly, and helpful… Ryan not only taught me practical research skills, like critical thinking, presenting data, and making presentations, but also encouraged me to pursue graduate school, apply for the GRFP, and be more confident in myself. MCB is also a great department for advising - I've never felt so secure in my academic plan than after talking with Marisa!”
The Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP) also supported Fortier’s research.
“I am grateful to UBRP for giving me the opportunity to continue my research with Ryan over the summer,” Fortier concludes. “Having the full-time research experience was vital to my decision to pursue a graduate education.”
For students interested in the GRFP, Fortier notes the program supports individuals, not specific research proposals. In order to apply, she had to write a research statement—a well-thought out proposal about an interesting research question—and a personal statement, discussing her motivations for pursuing science and how she would give back to the community as a graduate student.