St. Olaf Student Receives NSF Graduate Fellowship – St. Olaf College


St. Olaf Student Receives NSF Graduate Fellowship

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded St. Olaf College student Laurie Balstad ’21 a graduate research fellowship that will support his doctoral work in population biology at the University of California, Davis.

Laurie Balstad ’21 will study population biology at the University of California at Davis with support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowships support the most promising graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by providing fellows with a three-year annual stipend of $ 34,000 as well as a stipend of $ 12,000 for tuition and fees, opportunities for international. research and professional development; and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited United States higher education institution of their choice.

Fellows are expected to become experts in their field who can contribute significantly to research, teaching and innovations in science and engineering. Past award winners include many Nobel Laureates, former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin, and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

The research proposed by Balstad uses mathematical models to help answer questions related to conservation and management efforts.

“I’m interested in how humans and the environment interact with each other ecologically, evolutionarily and economically,” says Balstad. “I hope to link my research to marine conservation and management efforts across the Pacific, including efforts in my home community in Southeast Alaska.”

Balstad gained research experience in the summer of 2019 at the University of Minnesota with Associate Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Allison Shaw, who works with theoretical models to understand evolutionary processes. Balstad explored how parasites might affect the migratory behavior of animals through a process known as migratory flight, in which animals “escape” areas with high parasite density for areas with lower parasite density. His research on this project has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and presented at the Society of Mathematical Biology Annual Meeting in August 2020. She has also conducted research with the Department of Biology at St. Olaf College and the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis.

Most recently, Balstad worked with St. Olaf’s assistant math professor Sara Clifton on a mathematical model exploring racial diversity in professional hierarchies, including academia, medicine, journalism, and the military. Balstad was invited to present his work at the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Dynamical Systems Conference in May 2021.

“What I like about mathematical modeling work is that it is inherently interdisciplinary. I can study so many areas – evolution, microbiology and sociology – using generally simple mathematical tools to better understand often complex problems, ”says Balstad.

What I love about mathematical modeling work is that it is inherently interdisciplinary. I can study so many fields – evolution, microbiology and sociology – using generally simple mathematical tools to better understand often complex problems.Laurie Balstad ’21

Balstad thanks the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Biology at St. Olaf for helping their network and accessing incredible research opportunities.

“I met Dr Allison Shaw at a seminar she gave in St. Olaf and almost immediately fell in love with the field of theoretical ecology because it so elegantly combined my interests in ecology and Mathematics. Likewise, Dr Sara Clifton gave several seminars at St. Olaf before joining the faculty here, and after one of those seminars I approached her to possibly adapt a model she had made on the diversity of genders in professional hierarchies to accommodate racial diversity, ”says Balstad.

Laurie Balstad ’21

“I also very much admire the various women I have interacted with in STEM departments – including Associate Professor of Biology Jean Porterfield, Associate Professor of Biology Lisa Bowers, Professor Clifton, Assistant Professor of Biology and education Emily Mohl and Professor Shaw – their mentorship and support during my years at St. Olaf helped me thrive in STEM, and their research, career and life advice was invaluable to me then. that I went to college and am now entering graduate school.

At St. Olaf, Balstad is majoring in Mathematics and Biology. She enjoys helping out with the St. Olaf Association for Women in Mathematics section and the Swing Dance Club in her spare time. After graduation, Balstad hopes to become a teacher at a small liberal arts school and collaborate with management and conservation agencies to understand human-environment interactions.


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