Published: March 29, 2017 By

From rebuilding disaster-stricken communities to studying the effect of climate change on human migration patterns, 27 University of Colorado Boulder graduate students will have an opportunity to expand their research efforts in the coming years after winning a prestigious 2017 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

The awards, which were announced earlier this month, recognize outstanding graduate students from across the country in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. This year, NSF received over 13,000 applications and made 2,000 award offers to students nationwide.

The 2017 CU Boulder winners represent a wide range of scientific disciplines from across campus, including astronomy, engineering, physics, evolutionary biology, mathematics, sociology and more. Each recipient will receive a $34,000 annual stipend for the next three years as well as professional development opportunities. In addition to the 27 fellowship award winners, another 26 CU Boulder students earned Honorable Mention recognition.

The College of Engineering and Applied Science saw a 50 percent increase in the number of NSF graduate fellowships this year, with awards across the full breadth of the college.

“The number and diversity of NSF fellowships awarded to our graduate students show that the depth and breadth of our college’s fundamental research continues to expand,” said Bobby Braun, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science. “I know that their groundbreaking research efforts will help build a better society and improve people’s lives.”

Shaye Palagi, a second-year graduate researcher in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, woke up in the middle of the night and happened to check her computer, discovering to her amazement that she had received the award.

“I went back to sleep and then had to wake up and try to remember if it was real,” said Palagi.

Palagi, who also completed her undergraduate work at CU Boulder in 2015, studies relocation and decision-making in communities that have been struck by natural disasters. In 2016, she spent five months in the Philippines, where some 80,000 residents in the city of Tacloban were displaced by Typhoon Haiyan three years earlier. Relocation after disasters is often complex and fraught with long recovery timescales and numerous civil engineering hurdles.

“The goal is to learn how and why these relocation decisions are being made, what strategies are involved, and then build tools for them,” said Palagi, who plans to return Tacloban in late 2017 to continue developing GIS-based mapping and other data-based spatial models.

Palagi also helped organize the 2017 Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Symposium on campus earlier in March and is a second lieutenant in the Colorado National Air Guard, reporting for duty at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora one weekend each month.

“This award is an incredible validation, both of this idea and the hard work we’ve been doing,” said Palagi. “I’m motivated by the knowledge that this research will have real impact, both here and abroad.”

Dan Simon, a second-year graduate student in the Department of Sociology and the Institute of Behavioral Science, will use his award to look at relocation through a different lens. As a social demographer in training, Simon studies the ways in which human populations change over time by using publically available databases to identify trends in birth rates, death rates and migration patterns.

Simon and his colleagues recently investigated dips in life expectancy for the middle age white population in the U.S., keying in on opioid-related overdoses in particular. Going forward, he plans to look at immigration from Mexico to the U.S. and the ways in which a changing climate could impact the demographic composition of the migrant pool. 

“This research is right at the intersection of climate, migration and health,” said Simon. “I’m looking at the ways in which environmental factors might influence these processes.”

Simon hopes to test the “healthy migrant” hypothesis that migration generally favors younger, fitter people overall. A changing climate, which might further strain livelihoods, could potentially amplify or suppress that effect. Simon is optimistic that his new NSF funding will give him the latitude to pursue answers to that question.

“I’m honored to receive this award and feel it’s important not only for myself, but for my department’s work as a whole,” said Simon. “I believe the social sciences have an important voice to add to the study of these complex processes and understanding what prompts people to move — or stay — will become even more important in the coming decades.”

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