Undergraduate student Leigh Hamlet of the Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department is one of nine UMass Amherst students to earn a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. Hamlet’s three-year NSF award will provide her with an annual stipend of $34,000 and a yearly $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution she will attend.
For the third consecutive year, UMass Amherst has finished as the third leading institutional producer of NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recipients among Massachusetts colleges and universities, placing the university behind only Harvard and MIT.
As Hamlet says about receiving the NSF fellowship, “I'd like to recognize some COE faculty and staff who helped me tremendously with the application: Dr. Boris Lau, who has been a wonderful research advisor, and his graduate student Michael Nguyen, who has been an invaluable mentor since sophomore year; Dr. Emily Kumpel, who wrote me a reference letter and gave great advice; and Karen Skolfield of the COE Career Center who helped me edit my personal statement. There are at least a dozen others who were instrumental in this process, too!”
Hamlet recalls that “Scientific exploration began sweetly for me as I helped my father with his backyard beekeeping. I have glowing early memories of spinning extractor barrels of golden honey, marveling at the geometer skills of honeybees, and identifying queen bees in the colony. During high school, I sought answers to my childhood beekeeping queries through independent research. I studied the effect of selenium, a local pollutant and insecticide ingredient, on hive health…I was introduced to the scientific method, to researcher and community cooperation, and to conference presentations.”
From there, Hamlet chose civil engineering for her undergraduate study at UMass Amherst. In her first year, Hamlet was invited to participate in the First-Year Research Experience and chose a project under Dr. Baoshan Xing, a professor of environmental soil chemistry within the Stockbridge School of Agriculture. “Not only did this project broaden my understanding of the environmental fate and behavior of contaminants,” she says, “but it also marked the beginning of my four-year focus on environmental nanotechnology research.”
Hamlet received an Honors College Research Fellowship during her sophomore and junior years and worked under Lau, a CEE professor specializing in environmental nanotechnology. Hamlet says that “I studied the availability of protected soil carbon as a function of temperature, which depends upon the type and degree of soil organic matter interactions with mineral surfaces.”
During the summer of 2017, Hamlet was invited to return to Dr. Xing’s laboratory to work with her graduate student mentor, Huiyuan Guo. “I independently developed an in-field method for the detection of trace levels of silver nanoparticles in environmental waters using a pump filtration system and portable Raman spectrometer,” Hamlet explains. “I am a co-first author of a paper in preparation, and I presented at the Sustainable Nanotechnology Conference in November of 2017.”
Hamlet adds that “Returning to Dr. Xing’s laboratory helped me see the confidence I gained. I recognized that I matured as both a researcher, having published and presented, and as a woman in STEM. Recognizing the impact of Huiyuan, I strive to encourage other girls and women now; I hope to incorporate this mentorship throughout my career, preferably becoming a faculty member at a women’s college.
Currently, Hamlet continues to work with Guo on her senior honors thesis, focused on applying the portable Raman method for the detection of naturally formed silver-containing nanoparticles.
“Reminiscent of my childhood questions,” she says, “today I probe similar inquiries about toxicity. Instead of selenium and insecticides, I postulate how the environment transforms silver ions into silver-containing nanoparticles and their subsequent fate.”
Hamlet concludes that “Building upon a strong foundation in research, I intend to educate and inspire women to pursue STEM careers and the myriad potential realities and definitions of self—researcher, engineer, professor, scientist, writer.”
Hamlet will utilize her NSF fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. in sustainable infrastructure at the University of Washington, where she intends to research how refugee crises and other emergencies affect infrastructure relating to water and sanitation services, and how people interact with this infrastructure.
NSF Graduate Research Fellowships support the master’s and doctoral training of academically talented students pursuing careers in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This year’s cohort of 2,000 Graduate Research Fellowship awardees was selected from an applicant pool comprised of more than 12,000 students. The fellowship program’s application success rate of 16.7 percent makes it one of the most competitive graduate-level funding initiatives in the country. (May 2018)