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St. Olaf senior earns NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

By Catherine Monson '12
May 2, 2012

Kateri Salk '12 will use a three-year Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation to further her work in aquatic environmental studies. Photo by Steven Wett '15

Kateri Salk '12 was recently awarded a prestigious three-year Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will support her work in aquatic environmental studies.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are extremely competitive and are used to support the most promising graduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Fellows are expected to become experts in their field who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

Past recipients of the award include numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin, and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

"St. Olaf takes great pride in how well we prepare students for graduate school in the sciences and mathematics. Every time one of our students gets an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, it affirms how well our programs are perceived in the national STEM research community," says Associate Dean for Natural Sciences and Mathematics Matt Richey. "It's also a reminder of how talented, focused, and hard-working our students are as they leave St. Olaf on their way to a highly competitive research career."

Salk will head to Michigan State University this fall, where she will work toward a Ph.D. in zoology with a specialization in environmental science and policy. A biology and environmental studies major at St. Olaf, Salk is interested in nutrient cycling in aquatic ecosystems and its impact on the interactions between organisms and their environment. Her main research project during the NSF fellowship will examine how nutrient inputs that come about through rain events affect the production of biomass (such as algae) in Lake Muskegon.

In addition, Salk is looking forward to the "broader impacts" portion of her NSF fellowship, which means communicating her scientific findings to a more general audience. Salk has chosen to develop an aquatic ecology curriculum for elementary school students.

"This is a hands-on way to get children interested in science and expose them to primary research in a way that is also rewarding to the teacher," she says. "I've had great learning experiences with elementary students in Northfield, so I look forward to continuing to work and learn with young students."

It's no surprise, then, that Salk plans to become a teacher. She says her goal is to become a professor at a liberal arts college where she will have plenty of opportunities to be involved in undergraduate research. 

Three St. Olaf alumnae — Kelly Nail '07, Keeley MacNeill '08, and Elizabeth Speltz '09  — also earned NSF Graduate Research Fellowships this year.

Nail is a Ph.D. candidate in conservation biology at the University of Minnesota. She is currently researching the effects of climate change on the migration of monarch butterflies. For the educational outreach component of her fellowship, Nail will recruit volunteers to help monitor monarch larva.

MacNeill is currently a Fulbright fellow, working with a professor at the University of Oslo to study microbial respiration in lakes. She will begin graduate work this fall at Cornell University, and her research will compare how microbes in streams in the Ecuadorian Andes and the Colorado Rockies are impacted by climate change. As part of her fellowship, she will also reach out to students in Colorado and indigenous Andean communities and teach them how to make inferences about water quality through simple and inexpensive observations of aquatic organisms.

Speltz is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University, where she is working to design proteins that recognize novel targets. She then wants to use them in cells (like E. coli) to modify, change, or create pathways.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or