Chemistry Celebrates Success in NSF GRFP Competition

Each year, the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) receives thousands of applications from across the country. Scholars selected as fellows receive three years of fellowship support - currently $37,000 - as well as access to opportunities for professional development. The award gives scholars an early opportunity to conduct self-directed research, jump starting promising scientific careers.

As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. Over 450 alumni are members of the National Academy of Sciences and over 40 alumni have gone on to become Nobel Laureates.

The Department of Chemistry is excited to introduce you to the eleven students recognized in the NSF GRFP competition this year:

  • 6 undergraduate chemistry majors
  • 2 chemistry major alums
  • 3 graduate scholars

Congratulations to all of the scholars who applied this year!

Joe Ambarian

Emory College '23
NSF GRFP Awardee

Joe Ambarian is a fourth year undergraduate majoring in Chemistry & Theater. Since June 2021, Joe has worked in the Davis Group under the mentorship of graduate student Samantha Horwitz; he uses X-ray crystallography to structurally characterize health-relevant proteins.

Outside of lab, Joe served on the inaugural cohort of the Department of Chemistry’s SAFE committee, working to advance several community engagement and DEI initiatives. Joe is also an RA on Emory’s campus, an intern with The Alchemist Letters, and a member of Emory’s Pottery Club.

Joe will continue his work with protein biochemistry and chemical biology in the fall as he pursues a PhD in Chemistry.

I am completely blown away by Joe’s ability to drive research forward. While he is a quick learner and careful in the lab, he doesn’t just blindly follow directions; he thinks deeply about what he is doing. This natural curiosity and inquisitiveness have helped him garner a great feel for when he needs to ask a question versus when to try and problem solve himself. Joe is independent, but not overly confident, which has earned him the trust of the graduate students and postdocs in my group. Furthermore, he is able to synthesize lab topics and coursework to clearly communicate his science.
Dr. Katherine M. Davis
Joe’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm for everything not only has made it easy to mentor him, but it’s even rubbed off on me during times when my motivation has been low, and I needed it most. There’s not a doubt in my mind that whatever he ends up doing, he will not only excel, but also bring insurmountable joy and comfort to the people around him while doing it.
Sam Horowitz, Graduate Mentor
I can easily envision a future where Joe is wrapping up work in the lab early to make it to the Broadway premiere of his award-winning original play that deftly explores the intersection of scientific knowledge and human experience.
Dr. Kira Walsh

Taylor Blackburn

Graduate Scholar
Honorable Mention

Taylor is an incredibly smart, driven, and mature graduate student who I am delighted to have as a member of my laboratory. Her success as a scientist is aided by her ability to circumvent and overcome adversity. In terms of creating an inclusive community, Taylor has shown a commitment to education and community building and specifically in the chemistry community, Taylor is a member of SAFE, Georgia Science & Engineering fair, and the Atlanta Science Festival. Taylor is a fantastic PhD student and a valuable member of my laboratory and I am proud to be her mentor! 
Dr. Christine Dunham
Taylor is someone that everyone should get to know. She’s kind-hearted, fun, and passionate. Taylor works hard at the things she cares about, not just her science, but also her relationships.
Julia Tanquary, Graduate Scholar
Taylor is the nicest and most genuine person you will ever meet! She is very hardworking and passionate about the research that she performs in the lab. She is a wonderful scientist and a great person to learn from!
Edu Osoro, Graduate Scholar

Taylor is a second-year graduate student in the Dunham Group, where she is working to biochemically and structurally characterize mechanisms of bacterial persistence and resistance. Her current projects focus on bacterial toxin-antitoxin systems as a method of bacterial survival under stress. 

Taylor earned her bachelor's degree in biochemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology. As an undergrad, she did research in the Reddi lab aimed at elucidating mechanisms of heme acquisition. Post-graduation, she worked in the Peralta-Yahya lab on a project to develop novel GPCR-based chemical sensors. 

Outside of lab, Taylor serves on the SAFE committee as a representative for the faculty recruitment & development committee and loves to participate in chemistry recruitment and the Atlanta Science Festival. She also spends time serving in children's ministry

Wenxiao Deng

Emory College '22
Honorable Mention

Wenxiao Deng graduated from Emory University with highest honors in May 2021, where she pursued a double major in Chemistry and Applied Mathematics. During her time at Emory, she joined the Salaita Group in the summer of 2019. Her undergraduate research primarily focused on designing enzyme-powered polyvalent DNA nanomotors. She also worked on investigating air quality during the pandemic under the supervision of Dr. Eri Saikawa in the summer of 2020. These lab experiences at Emory sparked her motivation to pursue further research in the field.

Currently, Wenxiao is a second-year graduate student in the lab of Dr. Thomas Mallouk at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is working towards a PhD in Chemistry. Her current research involves mapping the pH in a Bipolar Membrane junction with molecular probes.

In addition to her research, Wenxiao is committed to peer tutoring through programs such as EPASS and Oxford Math Center, as well as participating in outreach activities and volunteering. She has been selected as a TA trainer at UPenn for two consecutive years, demonstrating her dedication to practicing equitable and inclusive teaching.

Wenxiao is grateful for her experience at Emory and acknowledges the invaluable guidance and support provided by Dr. Khalid Salaita, Dr. Eri Saikawa, and her mentor in the Salaita Lab, Dr. Alisina Bazrafshan, throughout her fulfilling undergraduate academic journey.

I taught Wenxiao in her first and second years at Oxford, where she had the distinction of being in the "guinea pig" class—the first class of students to take the new courses in the Chemistry Unbound curriculum. Wenxiao took on this challenge with diligence and grace. It was a joy to be able to see Wenxiao's early development of laboratory skills, as well as the growth of her passion for learning science. When I wrote graduate school recommendation letters for her, I had no doubt that she would find a fantastic university and research group to join for her doctoral studies. I am so proud of her for achieving this well-earned recognition!
Dr. Annette Neuman, Oxford College
I don't want to say something generic - that she was hard working. But she really was! She was so driven and quietly focused. I am glad to see her continued success.
Dr. Khalid Salaita

Krista Jackson

Graduate Scholar
NSF GRFP Awardee

Krista has been very persistent in overcoming experimental challenges, troubleshooting, and reading the literature. She brushes off failure and powers through!
Dr. Khalid Salaita
Krista is a fantastic colleague! Her lighthearted energy is infectious. She’s a hard worker who puts a lot of effort into her research.
Sarah Al-Abdullatif, Graduate Scholar
Krista possesses a natural attention to detail which translates into a constant pursuit of perfection while always keeping in mind the big picture of her project. Her work investigating the fundamental biophysical properties of a fully synthetic DNA-based motor will shed light on crucial question marks about this unique class of molecular machines and jump-start the development of the next-generation biosensors.
Luna Zhang, Graduate Scholar

Krista Jackson is a second-year graduate student in the Salaita Group. Her work focuses on the optimization and development of the sensing properties of synthetic DNA motors developed by the Salaita lab. Specifically, she is studying the effects of the size of the motors in the detection of different analytes.

Krista is also working on expanding the detection capabilities of synthetic motors from nucleic acids and viral proteins to heavy metals toxic to the human body. This additional function could provide a point-of-care assay to monitor lead contamination in drinking water, for example.

Krista received her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Outside of lab, she fuels her creativity by experimenting in music and the arts. She also has a love of mentorship and sees the value in fostering the future generation of scientists, so you will likely see her participating in recruitment events or casually giving advice to younger students.

Alex Kim

Emory College '22
Honorable Mention

Alex is an Emory alum and former ChEmory president who graduated in December 2021. During his time at Emory, he conducted research with Dr. Bill Wuest on the total synthesis of antifungal natural products. After completing a double major in biology and chemistry, he combined his dual interests to pursue a PhD in chemical biology at the University of Michigan.

He is currently a second-year PhD candidate in the Narayan Lab, where he studies aldol chemistry in PLP-dependent enzymes and their use in biocatalytic reactions. He maintains his passion for mentorship as a graduate student instructor, and is excited to continue his scientific endeavors in Ann Arbor. Go Blue (and gold)!

Alex is an incredibly motivated, ambitious, and focused individual who has very high ceiling for academic excellence and a future research career in academia at the interface of chemistry and biology.
Dr. Bill Wuest
Alex has a level of intellectual curiosity that one simply cannot teach. His most common asked questions is “why?” Whether it’s asking about the use of a certain reagent or a piece of glassware, Alex ensures he is making the most educated decision when conducting his work. He knows the mechanism, understands when and how to execute certain synthetic techniques, and, most importantly, is not afraid to ask questions, trouble shoot, and optimize a route. Through his research experience at Emory, Alex has developed the critical thinking skills necessary to become an independent scientist and instilled in his mentors a greater sense of positivity and curiosity in future research projects.
Ingrid Wilt, Graduate Mentor and Wuest Group Alum

Caroline McCormack

Emory College '23
NSF GRFP Awardee

In lab, Caroline has shown an intense drive to develop her skills. She has proven her initiative through brainstorming and pursuing different routes to make her molecules of interest, but also her flexibility and teachability through accepting and incorporating critiques to improve her thought process and technique. Caroline has the natural intuition and curiosity coupled with laser focus and intelligence to succeed as a scientist in any rigorous research area she chooses.
Dr. Ryan Allen, Graduate Mentor and Wuest Group Alum
What I love about Caroline's research proposal is that it ties in work that we have discussed during our group meetings with skills she has recently developed in lab. The proposal is quintessential Caroline showing her intellectual strengths and writing skills making her a scientific force for the future.
Dr. Bill Wuest

Caroline is a fourth-year undergraduate studying Chemistry with a minor in Global Health, Cultures, and Society. Her research in the Wuest Lab focuses on the synthesis of antimicrobial natural products and novel quaternary ammonium compounds to combat antibiotic resistance.

Outside of the lab, she has been involved in campus sustainability and interfaith efforts, including working as an intern for the Office of Sustainability Initiatives and serving as a member of the Interreligious Council. Next year, Caroline will be entering the PhD program in Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley, where she hopes to pursue research related to water, sanitation, pathogen transmission, and microbial ecology.

Sarah Narehood

Emory College '22
Honorable Mention

Sarah is a 2nd year PhD student at UCSD co-advised by Dr. Mark Herzik and Dr. Akif Tezcan. She is currently studying the structure and function of nitrogenase through both biochemical techniques as well as cryoEM. In her free time, she volunteers as a ChemPal mentor advising undergraduate chemistry students. She also works closely with the San Diego AWIS chapter on the PR committee.

At Emory, she worked in Dr. Brian Dyer's lab spectroscopically studying another exciting metalloenzyme: hydrogenase. In the lab, she developed and optimized a photocatalytic system to study light-driven electron bifurcation from a bifurcating hydrogenase. 

Sarah is a wonderfully talented and fearless student who loves to take on big challenges. She worked on the important problem of electron bifurcation in my lab, which required her to learn a wide range of skills in bioinorganic and biophysical chemistry. This broad background equipped her for her graduate work to study the mechanism of nitrogenase enzyme turnover using cryo-electron microscopy techniques in the Tezcan and Herzik labs at UCSD. This is a very difficult problem, but Sarah is well prepared to make a big impact.
Dr. Brian Dyer

Eddy Pineda

Emory College '23
NSF GRFP Awardee

After his original lab left Emory, Eddy joined the Raj group and began to work on my project focused on investigating macrocyclic peptide cellular penetration. It was a completely different research topic than his stated interests and required learning a bunch of new techniques that he had no experience with. He took everything in stride, learned from the occasional mistakes, and was always a fun lab mate to work with. I am incredibly proud of Eddy and his achievements this year. He deserves all the support in the world and I am glad the NSF recognized his potential. I am excited to see where his academic career takes him and can't wait to call him Dr. Pineda.
Angele Bruce, Graduate Mentor

Eddy Pineda is a fourth-year Chemistry major and Lusophone Studies minor from Dallas, TX. He has been an undergraduate researcher working under Dr. Jennifer Heemstra and Dr. Monika Raj. In the Heemstra group, Eddy attempted to develop a way to do live cell imaging of mRNA using an aptamer photoaffinity tag. In the Raj group, he is investigating the impact of aldehydes and 4-imidazolidinone on peptide cell permeability.

Outside of being in the lab, Eddy is a Woodruff Scholar who has worked on DEI initiatives through the SAFE committee while mentoring fellow first-generation, low-income students matriculating into Emory through STEM Pathways. He served as a teaching assistant for multiple organic chemistry courses and labs. Eddy is attending the University of Chicago for his graduate studies in Chemistry this fall, hoping to continue working in DEI and mentorship. 

Kristina Trifonova

Emory College '23
NSF GRFP Awardee

Kristina is a senior undergraduate majoring in chemistry and engineering sciences. She conducts research in the Dyer Lab, studying how semiconductor nanomaterials and hydrogenase enzymes can be used for artificial photosynthesis.

Beyond science, she is enthusiastic about mentorship, education, and advocacy. She has been a Resident Advisor for three years, tutors Buddhist monks through the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, and is a representative on the chemistry department's undergraduate committee and SAFE.

In the fall, Kristina will begin a PhD in theoretical physical chemistry to pursue her interests at the intersection of math, physics, and chemistry.

Kristina is dedicated to a career in science, and has already demonstrated the highest level of leadership and service while maintaining the highest level of academic excellence. She is destined to be a great scientific leader.
Dr. Frank McDonald
Kristina was a pleasure to work with, and contributed not only by providing her personal perspectives on the committee’s work but by seeking out feedback from her peers.
Dr. James Kindt, Department of Chemistry
I have been truly fortunate to have Kristina in my group. Her honors project studied electron bifurcation in a metalloenzyme, a novel and highly efficient energy transduction mechanism recently discovered in bacteria. Her persistence, deep insight and experimental skill produced some very exciting results that support a conformational gating mechanism to control the timing and direction of electron flow. Next, she plans to study theoretical chemistry at the University of Chicago. She is ready to make a big impact.
Dr. Brian Dyer

Lidia Waidmann

Graduate Scholar
NSF GRFP Awardee

Lidia is not afraid to explore without a safety net, whether it be new techniques or a different career trajectory. She charts her own path and isn’t afraid of getting her feet a little wet. This courageousness is an invaluable character trait in a graduate student.
Dr. Katherine M. Davis
Lidia's passion and determination for not only her research but also science communication are both admirable and contagious!
Kendra Ireland, Graduate Scholar

Lidia is a second year PhD student in the Davis Group. Her work focuses on the enhancement of CYP450s evolved for N-H insertion reactions via substitution of the cofactor with nonnative cobalt complexes, as well as the X-ray crystallographic characterization of fluorescence lifetime biosensors to monitor the glycolytic pathway in the brain at the single neuron level.

Before coming to Emory, Lidia obtained her BS in chemistry at Case Western Reserve University in 2020 studying the excited-state dynamics of photosensitizers in the Crespo Lab. She then continued to a year-long leadership development program at Sherwin Williams where she made paint formulations out of recycled plastics.

Lidia is currently the VP of Outreach and Academic Affairs for Pi Alpha Chemical Society (PACS) while also serving as a SAFE representative on the Faculty Search Committee. In her free time, she loves to bake (EmoryChem 2023 Bake-Off Champ!) and play soccer. 

Sending work out for review is never easy. The Department of Chemistry is proud of every student who submitted to this year's competition and we look forward to celebrating your future success.

Not pictured: A big congratulations also to chemistry major Isabel Wallgren, an NSF GRFP Awardee!