Gustavus Students Earn Multiple Academic AwardsIn 2023, Gusties are winning competitive honors across varied fields of study and accomplishment
Posted on April 17th, 2023 by

It’s awards season in academia, and Gustavus students and alumni are cleaning up. This year, Gusties have already claimed multiple Fulbright awards and Goldwater scholarships, a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, a Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) fellowship, and a host of other state, national, and international honors, in numbers that often exceed what Gustavus has achieved in the past.

“We’ve always had a great group of students, and I think [our success this year] is a combination of the Fellowships Office making a concerted effort to really reach out to make connections among different departments, and working with Career Development, the Center for Inclusive Excellence, and the Writing Center to get more of a ‘pipeline’ of student interest,” said Pamela Kittelson, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies and Director of the Fellowships Office. “Our work is starting to pay off in that [this year’s awards] are not just about our longtime strengths in the sciences; they’re also about other programs where we’ve started to become more competitive.”

Read on to meet these impressive scholars and learn more about their work. And the good news is still rolling in, so follow this story to stay updated on new honorees as they get recognized by some of the most noteworthy academic and research organizations across the globe.

Scholar: Trevor Kempen ’24, Chemistry

Award: Goldwater scholarship, which is “designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics…and is considered the preeminent undergraduate award of its type in these fields.” Kempen’s winning proposal focused on high-throughput data, the type of research used for pharmaceutical discovery and development.

Profile: After falling just short in his Goldwater application last year, Kempen realized he had to beef up his publishing and presentation credentials. “I was really happy that I went through the process of doing it before, because I knew how to do it this year,” he said. “The application essays are pretty personal, and it helps to sit down and start to think about what you want your future to look like.” Kempen added that the research opportunities he has at Gustavus stand out compared to other undergraduate institutions. “It’s unique to Gustavus that we have the ability to work in [Dr. Dwight Stoll’s] research lab at the level that we do,” he said. “When I talk to my friends at other universities, they don’t seem to have the same research opportunities because at bigger universities, most of the people who get published are grad students. Whenever I go to conference [as a guest and presenter], people ask what I’m doing for grad school or a PhD program, and I tell them I’m an undergraduate working with Dr. Stoll, so this is a really cool opportunity to have.” Such experiences have opened Kempen’s eyes to his future prospects; his current plan is to graduate a semester early and land an extended internship with a pharmaceutical company before deciding about grad school. “The conferences we get to attend as Gustavus students are at the forefront of research,” he said, “and they open your mind to how many research opportunities are out there.”


Scholar: Katie Lillemon ’24, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Award: Goldwater scholarship

Profile: Lillemon arrived at Gustavus thinking she wanted to focus on a pre-med path but soon switched into research mode. “Rich Aune in the Admissions Office did my Presidential Scholarship interview”—these renewable scholarships are awarded to admitted students who meet certain academic requirements—”and he’s the one who told me about the Gustavus biochemistry program,” Lillemon said. “It sounded really exciting, and then I also learned about first-year research opportunities in the FYRE Program (First-Year Research Experience). That’s where my love of research started, and I’ve been working in labs ever since.” This was merely her first taste of the Gustavus research lineup. “We have research opportunities out the wazoo,” she said. “It’s really unique, especially when you’re comparing it to large undergraduate institutions like the U[niversity of Minnesota]. It’s so valuable that we have things like the FYRE Program because you really get to know if this is a viable career for you, and the liberal arts focus means you’re also developing foundational skills like collaboration with others, writing skills, critical thinking, collaboration…all that stuff is so important.” After graduation next year, Lillemon plans to get her PhD, most likely in a biological field that addresses climate change. Her Goldwater proposal focused on assessing and limiting DNA degradation in plant-based materials, and she’s already begun exchanging ideas with fellow Goldwater scholars. “I’ve made connections with some of these folks who have just received their awards this year as well, which has been so exciting,” she said. “It’s really great to get to communicate with people outside of Gustavus about the kinds of work they’re doing. And the Goldwater mentorship opportunities are also something I didn’t even know about when I applied for the scholarship.”


Scholar: Kelsey Walock ’23, History/Political Science (majors); Russian/Eastern European/African Studies (minors)

Award: Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Bulgaria. These positions “place grantees in schools overseas to supplement local English language instruction and to provide a native speaker presence in the classrooms.” Gustavus had 12 semi-finalists for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program and Research/Study Awards in 2023.

Profile: Walock is currently awaiting delivery of her first passport, as her upcoming Fulbright experience in Bulgaria will also be the first time she travels overseas. Fueled by her longtime “passion” for speech and debate, Walock decided to apply for the Fulbright ETA after learning that Gustavus alum Claire Sagstuen ’11 co-founded Bulgaria’s speech and debate foundation. “I’m currently deciding whether to get an MFA in speech and debate in addition to a law degree, so when I realized we had a really interesting connection to Bulgaria and got to talk to her, that’s what really solidified it,” Walock said. After a several months-long application process, with multiple revisions for which Kittelson was an invaluable adviser, Walock received the good news in March. “I didn’t actually tell many of my professors about applying for this because I didn’t want to put a lot of pressure on it,” she said. “But the Russian and Eastern European department has always been super helpful in general, and my experiences and speech and debate here really prepared me to consider it and be able to have the confidence to apply.”

Other 2023 Gustavus Fulbright scholars:

  • Mad Chase ’23 Sweden Study Award for MA in Museum Studies
  • Lesley Darling ’15 Sweden Study Award for MFA in Folk Craft
  • Maria Marquez Flores ’22 Spain ETA
  • Samantha Raghu ’21 Thailand ETA


Scholar: Morgan Mellum ’23, Geology

Award: National Science Foundation-Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP) to fund paleoclimate research in graduate school.

Profile: This grant will provide a three-year stipend (usable over a five-year period) to fund Mellum’s graduate work and living expenses at the University of Texas-Austin beginning this fall. She won the award based on a proposal to examine global climate change during two specific periods: when the earth went from having many glaciers to no glaciers, and then from having no glaciers to many glaciers. The objective is to determine whether it’s possible to pinpoint CO2 levels that caused the change in either direction. Although completing this specific project in Austin isn’t required, Mellum had to be committed to the school’s geology program, which has been cemented by her time at Gustavus. “When I first applied to Gustavus, I had an idea that I would maybe go to grad school, but the summer after my first year, I was doing research on campus”—through the FYRE Program—”and I absolutely fell in love with the whole aspect of research,” she said. “That was when I decided I wanted to continue on and do this professionally one day.” As she pursues a PhD in geology, like so many current students, Mellum will be focusing on what ancient or paleo climates can tell us about today’s ecological challenges. She encourages anyone who has a clear idea of their future plans to apply for grants like NSF-GRFP. “If you want to do it, know that it is a lot of work and takes up a lot of your time,” she said. “And if you’re applying to this specific program, you pretty much need to know what you want to do in grad school. I hopefully one day will become a professor, but I want to do some research before that happens.”

Other 2023 Gustavus NSF-GRFP recipients:

  • Kira Holton ’20, honorable mention for biochemistry graduate work at the University of Michigan.


Scholar: Mikayla Bohner ’24, Music Education

Award: Women Band Director International’s Volkwein Memorial Scholarship, an award that typically goes to graduate students.

Profile: Bohner is one of only two undergraduate students to receive this competitive award, and the only one from a liberal arts college. “I have way too much to say about the Gustavus music department. It’s the most supportive community I’ve ever been a part of,” Bohner said. “Its’ very unique we get so many people who aren’t music majors in the top band and still play music of such high quality. At Gustavus, everyone belongs in the band.”


Scholar: Andrea Cruz Bracamontes ’25, Political Science and Spanish (majors) and Latin American, Latina/o, and Caribbean Studies (minor)

Award: A Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Junior Summer Institute (JSI) Fellowship this summer to the University of Michigan.

Profile: Cruz Bracamontes, whose parents are from Mexico, brought an interest in internationalism to Gustavus and has been nurturing it since she arrived on campus via coursework and co-curricular programs such as Model United Nations, which enabled her to visit New York City for a Model UN conference over this year’s spring break. But to more readily pursue international affairs in graduate school and beyond, she decided to apply for the PPIA Fellowship, where she’ll be able to take graduate-level classes with other college juniors who want to pursue careers in public service. To complete this rigorous process she received help and encouragement from several professors, the Fellowships Office, and the Writing Center. “You can bring any kind of writing there, whether it’s academic or a personal statement for a scholarship, and they’ll read over it and give you general ideas about how to improve your writing,” she said. This helped her complete the application and land the PPIA Fellowship, which “was started to address the lack of diversity across the spectrum of professional public service.” Now Cruz Bracamontes will spend seven weeks this summer in Ann Arbor, making connections that will inform her steps after graduation next year, which could be a master’s in international relations or whatever else this new experience brings. “I’m still debating exactly what to do after I graduate,” she said. “It might nice to go to grad school right away, but at the same time, I’m hoping to apply to the Fulbright Program, and I want to see where this program might lead. Pursuing international affairs or diplomacy wasn’t wasn’t always cemented in my mind, but the further I get into college, the more it’s starting to just feel right.”


Scholar: Tait Erickson ’23, Psychology

Award: Minnesota Psychological Association (MPA) Paterson Undergraduate Award; given to the outstanding college senior planning a career in psychology.

Profile: As a young person in modern society, Tait Erickson has grown up with social media just like most of his peers. Now that we’re a few decades into the technology we’re starting to see a regular stream of research, think pieces, and arguments tying social media’s use to emotional problems like anxiety or depression. Erickson realized that comparatively little has been studied about whether or how the use of these tools affects users’ attention spans. “Just being around people my age who use social media all the time, they’ll just throw out statements like, ‘My attention span is so bad now that I’ve been scrolling through all these six-second TikToks, and I’m so used to just clicking through information,” Erickson said. “I started wondering about that, and when I did look it up, there wasn’t too much research out there about social media and attention span and cognitive performance.” Erickson is still working through the project but will present his findings at a state conference in late-April. For his post-graduate plans, he’s still deciding between a master’s program at Arizona State University in auditory and language neuroscience and working in a research lab, both of which would help him achieve his long-term goal of earning a PhD. His story is similar to many liberal arts students who arrive in college zeroed in on one academic area before realizing how many other interesting options they have. “I arrived at Gustavus as an athlete who was pretty focused on just my exercise routines,” Erickson said. “But then I took a general psych class and thought it was super interesting stuff. After that I took a cognition education class, which made me realize there’s more subfields to psych besides just certain mental health fields, areas of study that can be related to cognition and processing and perception and attention. All that plus the relationships with professors you have here, in and out of class, because of the small class sizes are probably the biggest advantages I didn’t think about before coming here.”


Other 2023 Academic Awards [keep checking this space for updates]:

  • Caroline Southworth ‘24 is an alternate for a Critical Language Scholarship to study Russian. She also applied for a Boren Scholarship to Kyrgyzstan, which is pending.
  • Erin Coleman ’25 and Emma Erickson ’24 have been named as Rossing Physics Scholars, which are given annually to promising students at Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) member colleges.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


One Comment

  1. Julie Johnson’69 says:

    Absolutely fantastic. Now – to figure multiple ways to get these stories out beyond ourselves. There aren’t enough stories in the public eye that make the case for liberal arts, not as the only option but not one to be replaced.
    Congratulations to all who keep an eye out for our students, to encourage, to suggest, to help break open the gifts! And yaay to the Fellowships Office!