NSF Recognizes 10 U of A Students and Recent Alumni

Six University of Arkansas students — two graduate students and four recent alumni — received Graduate Research Fellowships this year from the National Science Foundation.

The highly competitive award, considered one of the nation’s top academic honors, is given to students pursuing graduate studies in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields, and recognizes academic excellence and the potential that each student will make to their field and to society at large. 

Each fellowship is worth $34,000 per year and can be renewed for up to three years. Along with the renewable stipend, each student’s institution will receive $12,000 per year to offset tuition costs, bringing the total amount of funding awarded to these six students to over $800,000.

Since the program’s inception in 1952, 155 U of A students and alumni have received this prestigious fellowship.  

This year’s NSF Graduate Research Fellows are: 

  • Lucas Bellaiche, cognitive psychology, Fayetteville 
  • Gianna Busch, bioengineering, Tulsa, Oklahoma 
  • Natalie Curry, biomedical engineering, Fort Smith 
  • Sarah Heissenberger, organismal biology, Hancock, New Hampshire 
  • Kaylee Henry, biomedical engineering, Prairie Grove 
  • Mikayla Tolliver, social/affective neuroscience, Grove, Oklahoma 

“Research, teaching and service are core values at the University of Arkansas, and students benefit from this approach in so many ways,” said Terry Martin, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “And in no place is it more apparent than when students compete for these very competitive, career-changing national awards. Congratulations go to these amazing scholars and to the faculty who supported their research and various academic efforts. Their continued research efforts will bring positive change in their chosen fields and ultimately in our communities as well.”


Bellaiche graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in psychology and a B.S. in mathematics in 2021. A Sturgis Fellow, he conducted research with Elizabeth Margulis, now a professor of music at Princeton University, and Darya Zabelina, assistant professor of psychology at the U of A.

As a Ph.D. student in cognitive neuroscience at Duke University, he researches the neuroscience of creativity and emotion. He plans a career either as a research professor or in industry at the intersection of art and science.

“Years of hard work both as an undergraduate at the U of A and as a Ph.D. student at Duke have culminated in this award. I hugely owe this fellowship to the efforts of my undergrad advisors: Dr. Margulis and Dr. Zabelina,” said Bellaiche. “Their labs permitted me to explore fascinating ideas of creativity and art within the scope of psychology, an education without which I could not have received this award. I must thank them, the U of A in general for the freedom to explore such ideas in research, Duke for allowing me to pursue these ideas in graduate school, and of course my family and friends.” 


Busch graduated summa cum laude with a B.S.Bm.E. in biomedical engineering in 2021. An Honors College Fellow, she conducted undergraduate research with Kyle Quinn, associate professor of biomedical engineering. Currently a Ph.D. student in bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, she researches single-cell metabolic heterogeneity in cancer. She plans a career in industry research and development or government research.

“I am incredibly honored to have been selected as an NSF GRFP recipient,” said Busch. “My undergraduate research in Dr. Quinn’s lab wonderfully prepared me for my graduate studies and enabled me to put together a competitive GRFP application. I am very thankful to him for his continued support and mentorship.”


Curry graduated summa cum laude with a B.S.Bm.E. in biomedical engineering in 2021. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in bioengineering and biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University.  



Heissenberger is pursuing a Ph.D. in biology. Before coming to the U of A, she completed a B.Sc. in biology at Keene State College in New Hampshire. 

In her program, she has two co-advisors: Sarah DuRant, associate professor of biology, and Carolyn Bauer, assistant professor of physiological ecology, Swarthmore College. 

Her research focuses on how drought influences individual physiology, social dynamics and maternal effects in an arid-adapted mammal native to Chile, the common degu. She plans a career studying the effects of climate change on individual physiology and behavior at a non-profit or within the federal government.  

“A huge thank you to the NSF for its support — I am truly honored, but mostly deeply humbled,” said Heissenberger. “I would not be where I am without the mentorship and unwavering support of my co-advisors, Dr. Sarah DuRant and Dr. Carolyn Bauer, and all the remarkably talented mentors, professors and colleagues I have been fortunate to have so far in my scientific career.” 


Henry graduated with a B.S. in mathematics and a B.S.Bm.E. in biomedical engineering in 2020. Her undergraduate research mentors were Morten Jensen, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Hanna Jensen, assistant professor of clinical research at UAMS. 

She is currently a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University where she researches optimizing parameter settings for deep brain stimulation devices. She plans a career overseeing a government research lab at the National Institutes of Health.

“I am honored and humbled to have been awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship this year,” said Henry. “I know that my time as an undergraduate doing research in the lab of Drs. Morten and Hanna Jensen formed me to become a critical thinker and ambitious scientist. I also feel that I was molded into a strong communicator and policy writer by my mentor, Dr. Sarah McKenzie, in the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy. Thank you all for your kindness, shared knowledge and unending support.” 


Tolliver is pursuing a Ph.D. in experimental psychology with a focus in social neuroscience. Before coming to the U of A, she completed a B.S. in psychological science from Oklahoma State University. 

With her research advisor, Anastasia Makhanova, assistant professor of psychology, she investigates the influence of hormonal contraceptives on biobehavioral processes in women, and her research recently received a $10,000 grant from the Women’s Giving Circle on campus. 

She plans a career as a professor at an R1 university, or in industry researching women’s health and fertility.  

“I feel tremendously lucky to have won the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in social neuroscience,” said Tolliver. “I could not have made this happen alone, and I would like to recognize the commitment and dedication of my advisor, Dr. Anastasia Makhanova. She worked with me tirelessly, and I can only hope to be as amazing a mentor to my own graduate students someday.” 

In addition to the fellows, four more U of A students or alumni received honorable mentions: Elizabeth Cobb, alumna; Michelle Nolen, now a graduate student at Colorado School of Mines; Jessica Orton, now a graduate student at Cornell; and Madeline Sudnick, current graduate student. 

U of A students and recent alumni interested in applying for scholarships and fellowships such as the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship should contact the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards at awards@uark.edu or 479-575-3771. More information is available at awards.uark.edu. 

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.


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