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USF’s First Hertz Fellow Finalist

Chemistry major is chosen from among more than 800 of the best and the brightest young minds in STEM in nationwide competition.

Goldwater Fellow Fiona Kearns is among the 50 finalists for the Hertz Fellowship.  Photo by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (March 2, 2015) – The little girl who used to watch the space shuttle launches from her driveway with her family over the years has come a long way in the field of science – all the way to being a finalist for the prestigious Hertz Fellowship.

“I grew up on the ‘Space Coast’ of Florida, in Palm Bay, where we were only under an hour away from the Kennedy Space Center,” said USF senior Fiona Kearns. “I just remember thinking as a kid, ‘a person figured out how to make that thing do that!’ and since then I have just marveled at science,” she explained.

Grateful to have been able to experience the NASA shuttle program in that way, she said, “I realize experiences like this are not to be taken for granted.”

Her curiosity piqued, she attended science fairs with her parents throughout elementary, middle and high school.

“They would scope out the competition with me and help me practice my presentations long into the night before the fairs would begin,” Kearns said.

Kearns was among 50 students chosen as finalists for the 2015 class of Hertz Fellows. The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation was created by entrepreneur John Hertz “to inspire and invest in the future of scientific exploration by providing resources and academic freedom to young minds.” The foundation provides graduate education funding for leaders in the fields of applied physical, biological and engineering sciences, who are pursuing science for the public good.

“These 50 students are smart, creative and innovative,” said Hertz Foundation President Jay Davis, PhD. “They rose to the top in a pool of 800 applicants and no doubt will use their time in graduate school to pursue groundbreaking scientific discoveries. While we will choose only a select few for the Hertz Fellowship, each of these finalists is worthy of acclaim.”

A Humbling Experience

Describing the experience as “very humbling actually,” Kearns said, “I was selected out of more than 800 applicants to be one of the 200 or so to receive the first round Hertz interview, which is infamously a very intimidating interview as it is styled after a Ph.D. oral examination.”

Not expecting to be selected for the second round interview, after meeting many of the “incredibly talented and intelligent first round interviewees,” she was still satisfied with the experience. “It wasn’t because I felt my performance in the first interview was not up-to-snuff – Dr. (Linda) Lucas made sure I was ready! Looking at the list of the other students, though, most are from MIT, Harvard, Princeton, very prestigious places, but the professors at USF, most notably my research mentor Prof. H. Lee Woodcock, have taught me chemistry and science very well so I knew I could hold my own and stand up to the challenge.”

The field of 200 was narrowed down to only 50 for the second round with Kearns among them. The final results won't be known until the end of March, but arriving at this level is an honor in itself.

It’s important to note that she came to this competition with a fair amount of prestige of her own. Last spring, Kearns held the distinction of being one of three from USF who were the only students in Florida's state university system to be named Goldwater Scholars.

“The Goldwater Scholarship is an incredible benefit to young aspiring science students and I am so thankful that I received it,” she said. “One of the main benefits is in allowing research-focused undergraduates the freedom to stay in the lab!” she added with enthusiasm. “With this scholarship, students like me can either fund our own research or have the stability to not have to have a job outside of class, which relates to more research time!”

She never fails to mention her gratitude.

“The two other USF students, Michael Calzadilla and Kaitlyn Deutsch, and I have certainly felt the wave of opportunities that come with the Goldwater,” she said, acknowledging “all the help we received from everyone in the Office of National Scholarships, Dr. Linda Lucas and Ms. Lauren Chambers, and all of our letter writers, who helped make our applications so competitive.”

And last summer, Kearns won first place for her presentation at USF’s National Science Foundation Research Day. She also traveled to the University of Vienna, in Austria, “to participate in research with Professor Stefan Boresch, a collaborator of Prof. Woodcock's at USF,” she said.

Focused on Scientific Research

Majoring in chemistry in the Honors College and College of Arts and Sciences, Kearns is working with her post-doctoral mentor Sai Lakshmana Vankayala.

“We are finishing up our work with Antarctic Sea Sponge chemical defense mechanisms and we hope to publish this work soon,’ she said. “This is very exciting for us as we have been working on this, in collaboration with the Baker natural products lab, for over three years now so we are very excited to share our findings.”

Kearns plans to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry focused on drug discovery, “conducting research on metalloenzymes – enzymes that use metals in their activity. These types of enzymes and proteins are essential to life, processes like photosynthesis, oxidative phosphorylation, oxygen transport and an uncountable number of others, are dependent on these types of molecules. I am just fascinated by them,” she explained. “In the long run, I hope to do research at a university and teach chemistry. I also hope to inspire young students, especially young women, to go into the physical sciences.”

Her trip to Austria allowed Kearns to make additional trips to Germany, Ireland and Slovakia. Nonetheless, her work was never far from her mind.

“I had plenty of research to do as well, on designing and testing a new mathematical method for calculating energy changes over the course of a reaction,” she said. “Since I have returned to the US, I have been back to running more simulations of the enzyme catalase in hopes of understanding what role catalase plays in the treatment of sickle cell disease. This is, of course, very exciting work because I am very interested in understanding enzyme activity as well as because of the potential implications my findings could have for sickle cell disease patients.”

And how do her parents feel today after all those science fairs?

“They never told me what I had to do in my career choices, but they certainly ensured my science education was fostered, because they knew that’s what I had a propensity for,” Kearns said. “I think now they are kind of blown away that all of that work has paid such great dividends!”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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