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From freshman lab mates to NSF fellows

  • Winning pair:
    Winning pair:  The National Science Foundation awarded William & Mary biology students Kalen Clifton (left) and Elizabeth Ransone with prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships.  Photo by Adrienne Berard
  • Already researchers:
    Already researchers:  Kalen Clifton and Elizabeth Ransone met during their second semester at William & Mary, after they were accepted into the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Freshmen Research Program.  Photo by Adrienne Berard
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Two William & Mary undergraduates will soon enter into research careers, each backed by a strong vote of confidence from the National Science Foundation. 

The NSF recently awarded W&M biology students Kalen Clifton and Elizabeth Ransone with prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships. They were selected from a field of over 12,000 applicants.

The two locals, from Williamsburg and Mathews respectively, began their research careers as freshman in the lab of Eric Bradley, professor and chair of the university's Department of Biology. Now seniors, news of the award comes just as Clifton and Ransone are preparing to graduate. 

“It was a total shock,” said Ransone, who works as a Peer Scholarship Advisor at the Charles Center. “I know the statistics behind actually getting it, especially as an undergrad  they’re not great.”

The three-year award offers financial support to underwrite graduate study toward a master's or doctoral degree in a STEM field. The award comes with a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the winner’s graduate institution. Clifton recently accepted an offer of admission to the biomedical engineering Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University.

“I’m interested in computational mathematical modeling,” Clifton said. “A lot of those applications may be tissue engineering or biomechanics.”

Ransone still has a few weeks to commit to a graduate program and will delay her fellowship start by one year to complete a Fulbright in Germany. She plans to spend the next year studying bacterial symbiosis, specifically Xenorhabdus bacterial mutants, at Goethe University in Frankfurt.

“I’m really interested in the ecological and evolutionary implications of host microbe symbiosis, so how does a bacteria interact with the host that it lives inside?” Ransone said. “It has a lot of implications for antimicrobial discovery, which we can use to fight disease in the human context.”

Ransone aims to eventually study arboviruses like zika and dengue. Her goal is to understand how viruses work with their host to infect humans and hopes to one day partner with bioengineers like Clifton to find clinical applications for her research.

“I’d like to look at how we can possibly modulate that interaction,” Ransone said. “I want it to get to the point where I can hand my research off to Kalen and she can do her magic. That’s my hope.”

Clifton and Ransone met during their second semester at William & Mary, after they were accepted into the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Freshmen Research Program. The program provides opportunities for W&M students to become engaged in research by matching students with faculty mentors and assigning them to laboratories.

As part of the program, Clifton and Ransone worked aviary duty together at the Institute for Integrative Bird Behavior Studies. They also studied mercury as an environmental stressor of songbirds under the guidance of Eric Bradley and Dan Cristol, a professor of biology. 

After one semester, Ransone was hooked. She continued to focus on evolutionary biology, working with Cristol and behavioral biologist John Swaddle for the next three years. 

“The hallmark of working with Elizabeth is that she is constantly innovating, challenging assumptions and trying to make the research project more and more rigorous,” said Swaddle. “It’s much more akin to working with a seasoned graduate student than with an undergraduate, and I view her as a true colleague in all of the projects we’ve worked on together.”

Ransone will graduate next month with a double major in biology and geography, while Clifton graduates as a mathematical biology (CAMS) major. Both students have research interests in microbiology, but the two are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to analyzing change over time. Ransone has focused her studies on mutations that occur over the long term, during millions of years of evolution. Clifton has zeroed in on shorter-term mutations, like those that occur in tissue engineering.

“Computational modeling allows for unique understandings of dynamic systems,” Clifton wrote in her NSF fellowship application. “One of the most dynamic phenomena is growth of biological structures.”

Clifton began her study of biological structures at a young age. As a child, she designed a zoo using stuffed animals for her dolls to attend. She equipped the dolls with a color-coded map that grouped the animals based on geographic location and created placards for each animal exhibit.

“While I have only been designing and problem-solving for 20 years,” Clifton wrote, “biology has been designing and problem-solving living things for billions of years.” 

Clifton spent the majority of her research career at William & Mary working with Chancellor Professor of Biology Margaret Saha. In 2016, she was a member of W&M’s iGEM team, which won a Gold Medal in the world’s largest synthetic biology competition. Saha sees Clifton as a rare talent. 

“It was clear from the outset that she would be a superstar,” Saha said. “She has easily mastered everything from wet lab endocrinology to hard core computational biology, to integrating bench work with mathematical modeling while participating in iGEM.”

As for Clifton, she credits her win to dedicated mentors like Saha, who helped guide her career at William & Mary.

“The way the application works, you describe the opportunities you’ve had in the past and the research experiences you’ve built up,” Clifton said. “Winning this award says your experiences have been preparing you for something, that you can do something great.”