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Geography grad earns prestigious NSF research grant

RELEASED: April 21, 2011

Jenna Christian
Jenna Christian

EAU CLAIRE — A recent University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire geography graduate has received a prestigious National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship to support her continued research relating to Liberian women peacemakers.

Jenna Christian, who earned her bachelor's degree from UW-Eau Claire in spring 2010, currently is pursuing her master's degree in geography at Penn State.

"I'm still a little in shock about getting this NSF award," Christian said. "It's a huge honor, and will be a huge stepping stone for me in the future. With this award, much of my summer research costs will be covered, and during the years I have the award I won't have to teach to earn a salary, which will free up an incredible amount of time to focus only on my own research. It's an incredible resource and opportunity."

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions.

Fellows receive a three-year annual stipend of $30,000 along with a $10,500 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

"I was impressed when Jenna Christian got into one of the premier geography programs in the country — Penn State — on a full scholarship," said Dr. Paul Kaldjian, an associate professor of geography who was Christian's adviser during her undergraduate years. "Now, Jenna has distinguished herself as one of Penn State's best. This is another example of how UW-Eau Claire can prepare its students to compete with students from anywhere."

Christian's current research explores peacemaking in the women's antiwar movement during the Liberian Civil War, with particular attention to the role of women peacemakers in postwar transition.

"I am still very much in the process of formulating the project, but I hope to be in Liberia for about two months this summer asking questions about what types of actions are considered peacemaking, who is considered a peacemaker and how you bound membership in a social movement," Christian said. "I believe the answers to these questions have implications for who gets a voice in decisions about peace and security in postwar government and society."

Christian credits UW-Eau Claire for encouraging her interest in research and for providing multiple opportunities to having meaningful research experiences during her undergraduate years. Those experiences have already proven to be invaluable, she said.

"Anyone who submits an application for this fellowship receives comments from three reviewers," Christian said. "It was clear in their comments how important my undergraduate research experiences at UW-Eau Claire were to the reviewers."

In 2009, UW-Eau Claire's geography department restructured its capstone class to focus on individual research projects and the research process, Kaldjian said, noting that Christian was part of the inaugural group of students who took the revised capstone.

"We're thrilled that the changes may have helped with her NSF proposal," Kaldjian said.

A semester abroad studying at the University of Ghana and a semester conducting research in Liberia also were meaningful experiences during her undergraduate years at UW-Eau Claire that enhanced her NSF proposal, Christian said.

UW-Eau Claire's Center for International Education helped coordinate her study abroad experience and an undergraduate research grant from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs helped cover the costs of spending a semester in Liberia's capitol, Monrovia, conducting research on postwar land tenure, Christian said.

Christian said Kaldjian and other faculty across the UW-Eau Claire campus regularly encouraged her to take advantage of the many opportunities offered at the university.

"Dr. Ingolf Vogeler gave me a chance to work on a collaborative paper with him and another student, which was published in a peer-reviewed journal," Christian said. "That's a unique opportunity for an undergrad. Outside geography, faculty like Dr. Marty Wood pushed me to become a better writer."

UW-Eau Claire also provided funding that allowed Christian to travel to national and regional conferences to present her research projects.

"These are all experiences NSF reviewers commented on, as well as factors Penn State faculty used when deciding about admissions of new grad students into their program," Christian said. "The early research experiences also got me asking critical questions and designing research projects long before arriving at grad school, which allowed me to jump into this far more high-pressured environment with a clearer idea of what I wanted to do and how I might go about doing it. Without the framework built at UW-Eau Claire, there is no way I could have written a coherent NSF research proposal in the first months of my master's program. Needless to say, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities and mentorship I got at UW-Eau Claire."

As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the NSF's GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers, according to the NSF website. The reputation of the GRFP follows recipients and often helps them become lifelong leaders that contribute significantly to scientific innovation and teaching. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin and "Freakonomics" co-author Steven Levitt.

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JB/DW

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