Baker awarded 2018 Graduate Research Fellowship from NSF

Extra: Rod Pritchard, Secretary of the College
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2018-04-11 16:00:05 - General

Dahlia Baker
Dahlia Baker

Coe College senior Dahlia Baker has received a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Baker is one of only 2,000 students chosen from more than 12,000 national applicants to receive the fellowship this year, which provides significant scholarship support for her to complete a doctorate.

In addition to Baker, two recent Coe alumni, Andrew Koehler '17 and Spencer Roth '13, also received GRFP awards for graduate study.

A physics major and mathematics minor at Coe, Baker has already completed several notable research internships during her undergraduate career. This fall, she will be enrolling in an aerospace engineering graduate program at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she will continue her research on the shape modeling of asteroids.

As a high school student, Baker met Coe Physics Professor Ugur Akgun through a Belin-Blank Center summer camp at the University of Iowa. While there, she began doing research with Akgun, which led to her enroll at Coe to study in the physics program.

"I came to Coe specifically for the physics research opportunities," said Baker. "I worked with Ugur on computational biophysics research that I wanted to complete during my freshman year."

Through the Coe physics program, Baker has had the opportunity to conduct research each summer. Between her freshman and sophomore year, she focused on simulating trans-membrane proteins, where she honed her computational techniques.

For her second summer following her sophomore year, Baker was selected for an internship at the NASA – Goddard Space Flight Center in the Washington, D.C. area, an opportunity sponsored by the Society of Physics Students. While at Goddard, Baker researched absorber coatings for observational cosmological products.

With the Goddard experience under her belt, Baker knew that she wanted to look for more opportunities in the space field. To support her internship in the summer of 2017, Baker received a Brooke Owens Fellowship, a program specifically for women interested in aerospace and aviation.

"The program was amazing. It paired me with an industry leader and also provided mentors in the aerospace industry, tailored to my interests," said Baker. "I got to spend the summer in Seattle at an asteroid mining company called Planetary Resources."

During her internship, Baker worked on shape modeling of asteroids, which encompasses how computers visualize their three-dimensional shape.

When her senior year arrived, Baker knew that based on her academic and research experiences, she wanted to enroll in a graduate program and continue her research in aerospace engineering. Through her own desires coupled with the strong encouragement by Professor Akgun, she applied for the NSF fellowship.

Baker's NSF research proposal centers on how orbiting rovers can automatically navigate around an asteroid to better map the complete surface. According to Baker, this will allow scientists to learn more about asteroid surfaces, because not much is known at this point. Her work will help improve the technology that lets the satellites locally navigate around small asteroids.

"The best way to learn about asteroids is to go explore them where they are," said Baker.

Over the next four or five years, Baker's goal is to earn a master’s and then complete her Ph.D. While she is still uncertain of her future career goal, it will undoubtedly reflect her research interests.

"I hope to earn my Ph.D. in the engineering field to be more balanced between science and engineering," said Baker. "I believe it is important to have that balance, because the industry is looking for people who can communicate both sides, between science and engineering, and with how much our current economy is growing there is incentive to start exploring space."

When reflecting on her studies at Coe, Baker believes she has been well-prepared for graduate study by the Coe Physics Department.

"The Coe physics program definitely prepares students to do research, and it prepares them to solve problems that other people might not have the tools to answer," said Baker. "I definitely learned how to think analytically. Even though I didn't complete research on campus in the last three years, the physics program definitely gave me the tools to go find the research topics outside of Coe that I wanted to pursue."

Baker also values the encouragement of cross-disciplinary study at Coe, giving students enhanced opportunities to broaden their horizons in the liberal arts tradition.

"The physics program lets students study as broadly as they would like, so a lot of physics majors have dual majors in computer science or math or chemistry or biology," said Baker. "The faculty is really good about letting students straddle between the fields if that’s where they want to find their specialty."

Along with Professor Akgun, Baker also credits other physics faculty for their support. She characterizes Professor Steve Feller as "a loyal and passionate advisor for the Physics Club. He was very helpful with the Society of Physics Students internship and helping me to plan several events that Physics Club has held." Professor Mario Affatigato provided advice and assisted Baker with her NSF application, and she has also worked closely with Professor Firdevs Duru, who is the advisor for the college's WinSTEM Club.

"The Coe physics professors have all contributed to my success in a lot of different ways, which I appreciate," said Baker. "In a small department, students get to have those personal relationships with each of the professors."

Baker takes pride in being the first president of the Coe WinSTEM Club two years ago.

"There is a growing concern for the well-being and treatment of women as they pursue STEM fields, so having this club is a statement on our campus to say that we accept, encourage and support women in STEM fields. I think that's the legacy the group has had since it was formed," said Baker.

Baker is also grateful for the environment at Coe that allowed her to explore many different things. Along with WinSTEM, she serves as president of the Coe Physics Club, and is involved in Coe Math Club and the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority.

"Being a smaller school means that it lets students be more explorative with their academic and extracurricular pursuits," said Baker. "At Coe, students work in multiple academic departments and form very well-rounded lives already, before they even leave college. I think that’s very important."

At native of Boerne, Texas, Baker is a graduate of Samuel V. Champion High School.

About the National Science Foundation's GRFP program

GRFP provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period (a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution). The support is for graduate study that leads to a research-based master's or doctoral degree in a STEM field.

The 2018 awardees were selected from more than 12,000 applicants and come from all 50 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. Honorable mention recognition went to 1,459 individuals.

The group of 2,000 awardees is diverse, including 1,156 women, 461 individuals from underrepresented minority groups, 75 persons with disabilities, 27 veterans and 780 who have not yet enrolled in graduate school. These awardees did their undergraduate studies at more than 443 institutions, ranging from small undergraduate, minority-serving, tribal and community colleges, to large state or private universities and Ivy League institutions.

GRFP is a critical program in NSF's overall strategy to develop a globally engaged workforce necessary to ensure the nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation. Former NSF fellows make transformative breakthroughs in STEM, are leaders in their chosen careers, and have been honored as Nobel laureates. A hallmark of GRFP is its contribution to increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce, including geographic distribution, as well as the participation of women, underrepresented minorities, persons with disabilities and veterans.

Launched in 1952 shortly after Congress established NSF, GRFP represents the nation's oldest continuous investment in the U.S. STEM workforce.