April 08, 2015

Graduate student wins prestigious NSF fellowship

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – A doctoral student in chemistry at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has won a prestigious fellowship from one of the nation’s leading science foundations. 

The National Science Foundation has named Tayler D. Hill of Marion one of its graduate research fellows. The NSF awards the three-year fellowship each year to promising students early in their research career. It fully funds three years of living stipend, as well as tuition and other expenses. It is aimed at helping the students focus on their studies while encouraging them to make broader impacts on research in cross-disciplinary efforts and in their communities. 

Hill’s award includes an annual $34,000 stipend and $12,000 per year for education expenses. 

“Basically, the fellowship affords the student the freedom to pursue their scientific interests in an established research laboratory of their choice while also allowing them to participate in the advancement of science across multiple disciplines,” said Sean Moran, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at SIU, and Hill’s doctoral adviser.  

Hill, who also completed her undergraduate work at SIU, said her research uses two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy to examine ultrafast enzyme dynamics. Enzymes are biological catalysts that speed up the rate of a chemical reaction happening in a biological system. Hill examines what is physically happening in the active “site” of the enzyme. The lasers used in this type of spectroscopy allow researchers to see reactions that take as little as one-trillionth of a second, giving researchers such as Hill an important window into chemical reactions that have many potential benefits. 

 “This project is exciting because we use a really cool femtosecond laser spectroscopy technique, which allows us to observe things that are happening very quickly,” said Hill, the daughter of Tammy Hill of West Dover, Vt., and the late Tony Hill of Marion, and granddaughter of Paula and Gary Hill of Marion. “The enzymes that I study also have interesting applications.  For example, arsenate reductase, which I just purified yesterday, has important environmental applications for bioremediation of arsenic.” 

Moran said the NSF review panel found Hill’s research proposal to be an innovative application of state-of-the-art laser techniques and biochemistry methods.

“This combination of methods is difficult to implement, but it has the potential to uncover new information about how enzymes -- the catalysts that control the chemistry of life -- work that are invisible to other methods,” he said. “Tayler made a very strong case to the NSF that her research plan can push the boundaries of what we know about enzymes, and that new discoveries in this area may be important in advancing medicine, environmental chemistry, and other fields of study.” 

Hill said she considered the fellowship an incredible honor, and that support from colleagues such as those at the NSF is very motivating. 

“It assures me that other scientists believe in me (and my ability) to produce meaningful scientific results,” she said. “Aside from professional networking opportunities, the fellowship will also allow me to present my results at research conferences.” 

As a native of the area, SIU has always held a special place in her life, Hill said, including fond memories with her late father. 

“I remember going to watch countless basketball games with my father as a kid and I always begged him to sit close to the Dawg Pound and buy me some Dippin' Dots,” she said, referring to the well-known ice cream company that also was founded by a graduate of SIU. “When it came time to apply for college, it was a pretty obvious choice for me.” 

As an undergraduate, Hill received a Presidential Scholarship (now known as Chancellor’s Scholarship), which is one of the top scholarships awarded to SIU students. After a successful career as a student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Hill decided to pursue her doctoral degree at SIU, as well. 

“I liked the department so much that I decided to stick around for graduate school,” she said. “In short, the people at SIU have always believed in me and have supported me -- in the most literal sense -- every step of the way.  My gratitude for the university and for its people is unmatched.” 

Moran said Hill applied for the fellowship last fall, sending information about her scientific interests and research plans, as well a personal statement describing her background. The NSF evaluates the application on the basis of intellectual merit, which includes the novelty and the feasibility of the proposed research. It also looks at potential broader impacts of the proposal, which encompasses the potential intellectual and social contributions of the work. It also looks at the student’s academic history and other supporting materials, such as letters of support from faculty. 

Moran said the NSF only funded 2,000 of the nearly 16,500 applications is received across all disciplines – about 12 percent – during the current cycle. “For chemistry graduate students, fewer than 200 NSF fellowships were awarded this year,” he said. 

“It is extremely competitive. The NSF review panels that evaluate applications are made up of distinguished Ph.D-level scientists in related fields of study,” Moran said. “This award means that the panel that reviewed her application considers Tayler to be one of the most promising young chemists in the country.” 

Moran said Hill has an excellent record of achievement at SIU, garnering top grades and several awards. That, coupled with a strong research proposal and her involvement with science education outreach in the local community, helped win her the fellowship and proved SIU students are among the best in the world. 

“Tayler’s fellowship is excellent news for SIU for many reasons. Aside from the direct impact on her research, it shows that students at SIU can compete with students from the top institutions and departments across the country,” Moran said. “Moreover, since Tayler was an undergraduate at SIU, it reflects well on the quality of undergraduate education available at SIU.   

“Finally, it confirms that graduate and undergraduate students at SIU can participate in research at the forefront of modern science,” Moran sad.