Dartmouth students recently awarded national scholarships

by Debby Cobon | 5/28/19 2:00am

Three undergraduates were recently recognized by national scholarship organizations for contributions within their fields of interest, adding to a list of over a dozen Dartmouth students who have been awarded national fellowships and scholarships this year. The Dartmouth sat down with three of these students — Gabrial Canfield ’21, Emma Esterman ’20 and Jason Wei ’20 — to discuss their achievements.

Canfield was named a recipient of the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship by the Udall Foundation. According to the program’s website, the scholarship honors college sophomores and juniors for “leadership, public service, and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or to the environment.” The program awards scholarships of up to $7,000 for 55 recipients.

Canfield is an environmental studies major and a Native American studies minor. On campus, she is involved in Native Americans at Dartmouth, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and works in the sustainability office. 

She said her work focuses on environmental issues impacting tribal land in Southeast Alaska. 

“There are mining companies that want to create mines where there are mineral-rich rivers, but those are on tribal lands,” Canfield said. “If mines were to be built on these rivers in Southeast Alaska, it would be a major problem for the fishermen, the economy, the tribal land and the tribal peoples. It’s both a major environmental and tribal land issue.”

Canfield said she first became interested in the intersection of environmental studies and tribal issues as a first-year, when she took the indigenous environmental studies class NAS 18/ENVS 18, “Native Peoples in a Changing Global Environment,” taught by environmental studies and Native American studies professor Nicholas Reo.

“Ever since then, I’ve been taking classes on both sides almost every term and really enjoyed it,” Canfield said. “This term, I’m taking an environmental governance course that’s also been really helpful.”

In terms of mentorship, she said that having professors who specialize in the two fields have helped her narrow down her interests. In addition to Reo, she also said that environmental studies professor Ross Virginia has played a vital mentoring role.

“Ross Virginia was my freshman year advisor,” Canfield said. “Since he is involved with The Arctic Institute, it was really helpful to talk to someone who knows a lot about Alaskan issues. The combination of having them both as mentors has been really great.”

Canfield said she was most excited for the alumni networking opportunities offered through the Udall Scholars program and the ability to meet other students who are interested in the same issues. 

Esterman and Wei were among several undergraduates nationwide awarded a Goldwater Scholarship, which honors “scientific talent” and encourages “outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering,” according to the program’s website. The program awards scholarships of up to $7,500 for 496 recipients.

Esterman is a biology major and environmental studies minor and was honored as a Goldwater Scholar for her research in genomics. She credits her interest in genomics and evolution to biology professor and research mentor Olga Zhaxybayeva.  

While Esterman was searching for research and job opportunities her sophomore fall, Zhaxybayeva reached out to her and offered her an opportunity to work in her evolutionary computational genomics lab. In her research, Esterman used a combination of computer code and bioinformatic programs to reconstruct the evolution of what she called “unusual” viral particles produced by certain bacteria. Since then, Esterman said Zhaxybayeva has played a vital role in her academic and research interests.

“That’s how it all started,” Esterman said. “I’ve been working with her for almost two years now. She has just been an amazing mentor. People always talk about how Dartmouth has excellent opportunities to get engaged with your professors and do research. My experience has far exceeded my expectations — it really is true.”

Esterman said receiving the Goldwater Scholarship has helped a lot in terms of building her confidence in her own ability to pursue graduate school and a career in research. 

“It’s helped me affirm that if this is a path I want to take — that I can do it,” Esterman said. “It means a lot to me because when other people believe in you, it’s a lot easier to believe in yourself.”

Wei, a computer science major, received a Goldwater Scholarship for his research in machine learning. On campus, he said he spends most of his free time doing research that focuses on artificial intelligence in healthcare. 

Wei described his research as using artificial intelligence to diagnose lung cancer based on pathology slides. 

“It’s a lot of coding and data collection,” Wei said. “The main project I’ve been working on involves using artificial intelligence to be able to classify lung cancer. We’ve actually found that the computer we built can classify lung cancer at the same rate as three pathologists at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.”

Wei said that machine learning first piqued his interest when he took a class with biomedical data science professor Saeed Hassanpour, which Wei said helped him solidify his foundation in machine-learning. Hassanpour now serves as his advisor, and the two now work together.

“He really inspired me to look at all the ways that artificial intelligence can be used to improve healthcare,” Wei said. “I really do hope that more people would know that Dartmouth is actually the place where the term ‘artificial intelligence’ was coined.”

Wei said he would like to see more students complete research in that field.

“It’s an honor to have received the award,” Wei said. “I hope that more undergrads at Dartmouth pursue research in artificial intelligence.”