Two APU Alumni Recognized in NSF Graduate Research Fellow Search

by Regina Ender

For those hoping to pursue a Ph.D. in a STEM-related field, there are few awards more prestigious than the fellowship offered through the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Recent APU alumni Samuel Cowell and Jack Houston have each been honored as 2017 fellows, allowing them to pursue their passions for science with three years of funding toward their tuition plus an annual stipend. The former APU students were selected from nearly 13,000 applicants nationally, placing them among the nation’s top graduate students working toward a career in the field. Past fellows include Google co-founder Sergey Brin, co-author of Freakonomics Steven Levitt, and six Nobel Prize winners.

Cowell, who graduated from APU in 2014 with a degree in biology and an emphasis in ecology, is working toward his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA. He is interested in how birds live in urban environments and is focused primarily on the dark-eyed junco, a small sparrow that has recently started breeding in urban parts of Southern California. Cowell’s study aims to determine if juncos can recognize and respond to humans.

Earning his undergraduate degree at APU helped solidify Cowell’s love of animals and ecology. Through academic and personal mentorship from his professors, he was affirmed in his abilities as a scientist, giving him the push to pursue graduate studies. After earning his Ph.D., Cowell hopes to become a professor in order to cultivate students’ skills and serve as a role model for them as his professors did for him.

“Ultimately, I think my classes just made me realize that I enjoyed animals and their ecology and that I had the academic and scientific skills necessary to pursue that further in graduate school,” Cowell said. “And, I would say that the professors more than the actual courses themselves were what really pushed me to pursue a graduate degree. They cared about me as a person and mentored me both personally and academically.”

In working toward his Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, Houston is building upon the biochemistry degree he earned from APU in 2015. His thesis focuses on cancer biology, specifically regarding genomic instability.

Houston’s coursework in biochemistry and genetics equipped him with the foundation he needed to pursue his Ph.D. The San Diego native also had the opportunity to study abroad in Oxford during his time at APU, which he said taught him to hone his critical thinking skills and made him more independent. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Houston landed a job at Celgene, a biopharmaceutical company in San Diego where he interned during his undergraduate career, which helped steer his interest in cancer biology. When working as a technician for the company, he realized he would have to earn a Ph.D. in order to be a leader in the science field and ask his own questions. Upon earning his graduate degree, he plans to become a professor or work in the pharmaceutical industry as a research scientist.

“APU overall prepared me really well to go onto graduate school,” Houston said. “My coursework in biochemistry and genetics gave me a really good foundation for my graduate classes.”

Both alumni agreed that being awarded the fellowship was an honor and look forward to utilizing it to propel them forward in their careers.

Note: This information is current for the 2018-19 academic year; however, all stated academic information is subject to change. Please refer to the current Academic Catalog for more information.