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National Science Foundation honors alumni for leadership potential

April 11, 2012

  • Logan Massie Higgins ’11

Undergraduate Campus

Three Lewis & Clark alumni received prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships for demonstrating promise as leaders in their fields. The NSF offers fellows three years of support for graduate studies, investing in the education of outstanding students who have the potential to contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

Logan Massie Higgins ’11 plans to attend MIT’s PhD program in microbiology, where she hopes to continue studying the ecology of microorganisms. Zach Wilson ’10 will be entering a doctorate program in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of Colorado. Leah Zani ’08 is currently enrolled at UC Irvine and working toward a PhD in sociocultural anthropology. We talked to all of the recipients about the research they’ve done at Lewis & Clark and their plans for the future.

Logan Massie Higgins ’11
Majors: Biology and mathematics
Tell us about the research you’ve been involved in at Lewis & Clark.

Since the summer after my sophomore year at Lewis & Clark, I’ve been a member of Peter Kennedy’s plant-microbe interaction lab in the biology department. We study microorganisms (both bacteria and fungi) that form symbioses, or mutually beneficial interactions, with tree roots. The great thing about our research is that most of the trees we study are native to Oregon, so if I ever need to get some samples, I can always just go out to the parking lot or Tryon Creek State Park and dig up some roots to bring back to the lab. Few people realize how strongly microbes influence forest development—the ones that we study can affect succession and unlock nutrients in forest soil that would otherwise be inaccessible to plants. Other forest-dwelling microbes are responsible for breaking down organic matter and driving other aspects of global nutrient cycles. It’s safe to say that without microbes, life as we know it would simply not be possible!

What are your plans for the future, and how do you think your Lewis & Clark education has prepared you for those goals?

I’ve always loved both teaching and research, and I can’t think of a better career to combine those two interests than that of a college professor. Don’t tell my former professors, but lately I’ve been trying to figure out who in the biology department might be getting ready to retire in another 8 or 10 years so that I can come back to teach at Lewis & Clark after school.

More seriously though, I think that because undergraduate researchers are so intimately involved in the scientific process at Lewis & Clark, I not only have the technical skills and confidence to succeed in the highly research-centric world of graduate school, but I also have a strong conception of what it takes to be a good mentor and teacher to undergraduates. Being a college professor is really hard work, and I have to commend our faculty for their incredible intellect, dedication, and organizational skills. I just hope that I can live up to their high standards once I have my own career.

Zach Wilson ’10
Majors: Molecular biology and biochemistry
Tell us about the research you’ve been involved in at Lewis & Clark.

For several summers and during my senior year, I worked with Associate Professor Nikolaus Loening trying to purify potentially neurotoxic proteins identified from the venom of spiders related to the brown recluse. Spider venom contains a diverse mixture of small proteins that can specifically manipulate a wide range of neuronal targets. Understanding the structure and function of these small proteins can lead to new tools for neurobiology research or lead to the creation of pharmaceuticals or biodegradable insecticides.

What are your plans for the future, and how do you think your Lewis & Clark education has prepared you for those goals?

In the near future, I plan to continue performing scientific research in the fields of molecular biology and biochemistry. However, I’ve also been interested in teaching. The doctorate program at the University of Colorado will provide me a chance to teach undergraduates, which will give me valuable experience and help me decide if I want to pursue a teaching faculty position later in my career.

My Lewis & Clark education has given me a strong foundation in scientific reasoning and critical thinking. I’m thankful for all the guidance and support that I have received from the Lewis & Clark community, and I’m confident that I will be successful in my future endeavors.

Leah Zani ’08 
Major: Sociology/Anthropology
Tell us about the research you’ve been involved in at Lewis & Clark.

At Lewis & Clark, my studies ranged across subjects including Buddhism, cyborg anthropology, feminist anthropology, medical anthropology, music and the arts. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork on a variety of topics, including Vietnam War veteran’s use of memorials to remember their war experiences; Yakama Native American uses of locally bioprospected cancer medications; and the rise of an artisanal chocolate culture in Portland. 

What are your plans for the future, and how do you think your Lewis & Clark education has prepared you for those goals?

My education at Lewis & Clark taught me incredibly valuable thinking skills—how to critically analyze information, how to be an attentive researcher, and how to produce new knowledge. The learning environment in the Sociology/Anthropology department was comprehensive (providing me with social theory and methods trainings that many other programs lack) and very supportive. There, I was encouraged to take risks and research topics that were just barely beyond my reach—qualitative stretching exercises that continue to be vital to my development as a person and as a researcher.

In my current work, I am exploring embodiment and rehabilitation in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Laos is in a long post-conflict transition due to truly incredible amounts of ordnance and landmines that remain from the Vietnam and Secret Wars in that region. These remnants of war result in widespread death and maiming of persons and loss of land. The linked process of individual and collective loss and recovery are the focus of my research. I am using the training in ethnographic research, religious studies, and Buddhism that I received at Lewis & Clark to analyze how Buddhism is part of how people conceive of national belonging and the rehabilitation of maimed bodies. This research will increase knowledge of rehabilitation practices, including legal compensation practices, and the embodiment of lost or artificial limbs. Additionally, this research could be used to redesign aid to post-war regions in the global south.

In 2010, eight Lewis & Clark alumni received NSF fellowships. Learn about their diverse scientific pursuits
in this story, originally published in the Chronicle magazine.

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