Baylor Doctoral Student Awarded National Science Foundation Fellowship

April 11, 2012

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Media Contact: Frank Raczkiewicz, (254) 710-1964
Waco, Texas (April 11, 2012) - Zack Valdez, doctoral candidate in The Institute of Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (TIE3S) at Baylor University, has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowship in the geosciences.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) recognizes outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based graduate degrees. GRFP fellows receive three years of support, a $30,000 annual stipend, a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance to the institution, international research opportunities and TeraGrid Supercomputer access.

"After the initial excitement, I realized what an honor and how blessed I was to be chosen for such a prestigious award," Valdez said. "After speaking with different professors and my adviser about the reputation associated with the award I ironically felt proud and humbled to share the award to which I owed so much to the support of friends, family and the Baylor community."

The application process is extensive and Valdez worked for several months to apply for the award, as applicants are judged on the quality of the research project they design and their research accomplishments as an undergraduate student, said Dr. Bill Hockaday, assistant professor of geology at Baylor and Valdez's adviser.

Valdez said he chose to apply for the award during orientation and was re-exposed to the option in a grant writing class with Dr. Steven G. Driese, professor and chair of the department of geology at Baylor.

"I'm especially grateful not only for his direction but what I gained from various departments including Dr. Carolyn Skurla, associate professor of engineering; Elizabeth Vardaman, associate dean for special academic projects in the College of Arts and Sciences; and my adviser Dr. Hockaday," Valdez said. "I think the direction and experience I had received arriving to Baylor allowed me further confidence to consider my potential, as I had worked on and presented research at various levels and locations from Washington, D.C., to Taipei, Taiwan."

As a NSF fellow, Valdez said he is studying how Nitrogen fertilization and harvesting techniques affect the belowground carbon stocks associated with the switchgrass agriculture, a potential plant for biomass and biofuel use.

"The extensive root system of this plant sequesters carbon underground, acting as a sink for CO2, and by optimizing the associated agricultural practices, I hope it can create a positive environmental option that supports global food supplies and provides an alternative form of energy," Valdez said. "Using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance techniques, we will study the root biochemistry to determine how these processes affect the plant and soil environment, and if we can utilize climate modeling, we can have a better assessment of how the larger scale development of switchgrass affects current and future climate conditions."

Valdez received his bachelor's degrees in engineering and physics from St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

"If I had advice for any students who are considering a future profession as scientists or in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field, I would highly recommend they apply to various internships and research options through Baylor and over the summer to gain a better understanding of what they are good at and what they enjoy," Valdez said. "Even though I received my undergraduate degrees in engineering and physics, I didn't know that I enjoyed the earth sciences research field until I had that opportunity, and ultimately that brought me here."

About The Institute of Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences

The Institute of Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (TIE3S) at Baylor fosters the interaction and integration of biology, chemistry, environmental science and geology for the study of the behaviors, stresses and sustainability of Earth's natural system at multiple scales. This is accomplished through active collaboration, interdisciplinary research, graduate education and public outreach.

For more information, contact TIE3S at (254) 710-2224.

About Baylor University

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, classified as such with "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions.

About the College of Arts & Sciences

The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University's oldest and largest academic division, consisting of 27 academic departments and 13 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines.

by Katy McDowall, student newswriter, (254) 710-6805