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Campus Opportunities Lead to Graduate Fellowship

Aubrey Paris’s journey from her first days at Ursinus to pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton as a National Science Foundation Fellow is a trajectory that makes the most of her campus experience. 

As a Fellow of the Center for Science and the Common Good, to winning an entrepreneurship competition, to honors lab work, and an internship with a global policy institute, these undergraduate experiences have culminated in receiving a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in Chemistry, the most prestigious post-graduate fellowship in the sciences, according to her professors.  She is the first Ursinus chemistry student in many years to have achieved this honor.

At Princeton University she will work with Dr. Andrew Bocarsly on electro-and photochemical carbon dioxide reduction strategies, before seeking a career in alternative energy-based science policy.

“So many opportunities that I’ve taken advantage of here, I would not have had anywhere else, and that comes from our innovative approach to education and multidisciplinarity,” she says.

At Ursinus, she has done undergraduate research with chemistry faculty Brian Pfennig for three years. Her senior honors research thesis is titled, “Pyrazine and Asymmetric Pyrazine-Modified Cyanoferrate Complexes in the Electro- and Photochemical Reduction of Carbon Dioxide.” The premise is that carbon dioxide is a prevalent atmospheric contaminant that can’t be used for anything productive. But, she explains, “with an impending fuel shortage, the excess carbon dioxide might be transformed chemically into a useable product, potentially an alternative fuel source. “

Says Dr. Pfennig:  “Aubrey is one of those once in a lifetime students. When I wrote her letter of recommendation for graduate school, it was three pages, single-spaced with subcategories. She excels at whatever she does …  When I asked her what is it about Ursinus specifically that fosters her success, she listed all the usual things that we like to advertise as the strengths of an undergraduate education here: accessible professors who provide the opportunity to succeed, who are friendly and know her as an individual and where she can develop a relationship with them that goes beyond just the classroom, the opportunity to do big-school research in a small-school environment without having to compete with graduate students and post-docs for access to instrumentation.”

As a freshman coming from high school science fairs, Paris knew she would be a science major, but her path to graduation was not without twists and turns. “Science has been an important part of my life since my time as a student at Delran (N.J.) High School, and it’s no surprise that this interest translated into my double-major in Chemistry and Biology here at Ursinus. I also have a French minor because we are a liberal arts school, after all,” she adds.

But at one point Paris was unsure about her goals. “This was particularly worrisome because I was surrounded by students who knew what they wanted in their lives down to the exact detail,” she recalls. As a Fellow of the Center for Science and the Common Good, she spoke to the Center’s first speaker, Dr. Richard Heinzl, founder of the North American Doctors Without Borders.

“During some one-on-one time with Dr. Heinzl, I expressed this concern, and he gave me a piece of advice that was simple but reassuring, and it forever changed my outlook on the future. He said, ‘So much of it comes down to serendipity; it’s luck. When people have their whole lives planned out ahead of them, they are often unable to cope with unexpected changes or bumps in the road when they inevitably arise.’ I’ve never forgotten this, and I realized not a year later that he was completely right.”

Interactions like the one with Dr. Heinzl are typical of a small liberal arts school. The Center also led Paris to experience a “chain reaction of events that I probably never would have come across at any other school,” she says. As a Fellow, she was exposed to the Institute on Science for Global Policy (ISGP), an international organization with which Ursinus partnered for two policy conferences. Paris became an ISGP intern in the summer of 2013 and helped to plan the Ursinus-ISGP conferences. She became an official staff member as a Fellow of the ISGP, and traveled to multiple conferences across the country.

That experience at ISGP led her to compete in the U-Innovate competition last year, sponsored by the U-Imagine Center at Ursinus. “My work with the ISGP opened my eyes to the failure of current infectious disease-tracking systems to efficiently provide reliable and accessible information to not just government agencies and practitioners, but also to the public.” Paris and her U-Innovate team proposed Globalized Ethics for Medical Science (GEMS) to address this problem. GEMS is currently in prototype-development, but at full capacity will seek to provide accurate, publicly-accessible information regarding infectious disease spread in real-time as a website and mobile application.

“Without the CSCG I never would have been exposed to the ISGP, and without the ISGP I never would have competed in U-Innovate, and without U-Innovate I never would have become part of the GEMS Team,” she says.

Her research experiences, which also included Professor of Biology Robert Dawley’s field research during freshman year, led to her acceptance to the AMGEN Scholars Program at the University of California, Berkeley, last summer, where she spent three months in the inorganic chemistry lab of Dr. Chris Chang getting her first hands-on look at carbon dioxide reduction chemistry, which prepared her to propose her honors project this year.

Paris was an honorable mention Goldwater Scholar in the sciences in 2014, and has won several chemistry awards. She was co-editor of publications from ISGP and helped her professor, Brian Pfennig, edit his book, Principles of Inorganic Chemistry, published this month (April 2015) by John Wiley & Sons.

She has won a chemistry department prize all four years, beginning with the CRC Handbook Prize for Excellence in General Chemistry and including the Organic, Inorganic, ACS, and Lettinger Prizes.

At times she has chosen the more difficult path. But she says, “As students at Ursinus we are encouraged to branch out and explore all of the disciplines that interest us, which is probably common at most liberal arts schools, but what makes Ursinus different is the fact that we are also encouraged to find and explore the links between these disciplines. I have become a much more well-rounded and well-thought-out individual since first coming to Ursinus.”