Friday, April 29, 2011

Velencia Witherspoon Named Recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship

When Florida A&M University (FAMU) student Velencia Witherspoon was told she was selected as the recipient of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), she ran up and down the hallways of the FAMU-Florida State University College of Engineering building while doing her “happy dance.”

This is the most prestigious award a graduate can receive to pursue his or her doctorate in the sciences and engineering. As a recipient, Witherspoon will receive a $30,000 annual stipend, a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance and international research and professional development opportunities.

“I was really excited; it was elating,” said Witherspoon, a Jacksonville native. “I didn’t think life could get any better. I had just got accepted into the University of California-Berkley. It was really competitive. I was up against people from Georgia Tech and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I did my happy dance and then I had to go back to working on my design project but it lasted about 20 minutes.”

Witherspoon, who has a 3.91 grade point average, is a Life-Gets-Better scholar. She is scheduled to graduate on April 30 with a degree in chemical engineering.

Witherspoon’s research proposal was regarding highly functionalized polymer membranes for fuel cell application.

This study would be applied towards the formulation in the production of hybrid composite materials for fuel cell membranes. It also enhances the current understanding of the interaction between ionic liquids and polymer nanocomposite systems. Witherspoon said the combination of these dissimilar materials would help to create a more economical, environmentally friendly, energy efficient and sustainable membrane for electrochemical applications.

“I believe that a true scientist is not only one who pursues knowledge, but one who shares it and encourages its pursuit by others,” Witherspoon said. “A fiery passion for the pursuit of knowledge, a love of the potential applications, and a belief that we all have the potential to contribute to this amazing journey for humanity is what I have to offer. I cannot tell what my future holds because it is not defined by my present state; it is defined by my actions and decisions of tomorrow. I do desire to serve as an inspiration to other young African-American females who not only possess great potential but dream of becoming scientists. I will continue to strive for excellence until I can make the dreams of others as tangible as my own.”

The NSF’s GRFP helps to ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity. The 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 United States institutions.

“I think that FAMU taught me how to speak, how to market myself and what about me makes me so different,” said Witherspoon, who was a freshman senator in FAMU’s Student Government Association. “The university also taught me to manage my time and gave me the willingness to risk it all. I don’t think about the risk of losing—I just try! The mentoring has been great. The older students and FAMU professors take it upon themselves to push you. FAMU has given me a lot of opportunities.”

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