Share this:
  • Kaja Luxem and Stephanie Laga
06/13/2014 05:40:52

Seniors Named Fulbright Scholars

Two graduating Caltech seniors, Stephanie Laga and Katja Luxem, have been selected to receive 2014–2015 Fulbright scholarships to pursue graduate studies abroad.

The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government's premier scholarship program. Set up by Congress in 1946 to foster mutual understanding among nations through educational and cultural exchanges, Fulbright grants enable U.S. students and artists to benefit from unique resources in more than 150 nations around the world. Each year, approximately 1,200 U.S. scholars receive Fulbright awards.

Notably, both Laga and Luxem did their undergraduate research in the laboratory of Harry Gray, Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry. "Katja and Stephanie have done groundbreaking research in chemistry during their time at Caltech," says Gray. "They also have been major contributors to many other campus activities, most especially as inspirational leaders of programs that have spread the 'science word' far and wide."

"Both of these women epitomize the international outlook that Caltech tries to develop in undergraduates," says Lauren Stolper, director of Fellowships Advising and Study Abroad, who also serves as Caltech's Fulbright Program advisor. "Stephanie studied abroad at the University of Melbourne for five months last fall, and Katja has sought out several opportunities to do research abroad including time in the Czech Republic and Australia. Science is indeed an international arena," she adds, "and the experiences abroad that these students gained through Caltech programs helped them win a Fulbright and prepare them to take full advantage of their Fulbright year abroad."

Stephanie Laga, a chemistry major from Northridge, California, will be headed to Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) in Erlangen, Germany. There, Laga will be working with Professor Karsten Meyer on synthesizing and investigating several earth-abundant metal complexes to elucidate "a demanding step in water splitting," Laga says. "Water splitting is of interest because it has emerged as a way to convert solar energy into chemical energy, producing products that have potential as alternative fuel sources." 

Laga's choice to go to Germany "was really a no-brainer," she says. "I am extremely intrigued by Germany's rich culture and really love the language. In terms of science, I knew I wanted to continue doing great inorganic chemistry that followed the same theme of sustainability, and Germany has a very progressive stance on developing alternative energy technologies and is known for conducting top-notch chemistry."

Upon her return to the U.S., Laga—who was also one of two recipients of the Caltech Library Friends' Senior Thesis Prize—will pursue a doctorate degree in inorganic chemistry at Yale University. "I am not sure whether I would like to go into industry or academia," she says, "but I do know that I would like to keep working on inorganic chemistry that builds a more sustainable future."

Katja Luxem, a native of Durham, New Hampshire, will spend the next academic year affiliated with ETH Zürich and with EAWAG, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, where she will study the cycling of an essential nutrient, selenium, in marine microbes. "This is part of the process that brings selenium from the ocean to land, where it impacts our health," Luxem says. "The research group I'll be working in, headed by Professor Lenny Winkel, spearheaded the development of methods to study selenium at its very low environmentally relevant concentrations. My research will focus on understanding the effects of environmental stress, like pollution and climate change, on selenium metabolism in three marine microorganisms."

Luxem, who is graduating with a bachelor of science in chemistry and a master's in geobiology, became interested in studying the environment after taking a geobiology course her junior year. "As a Fulbright Fellow, I am looking forward to learning more about how microorganisms perform the chemistry that shapes our planet. Moreover, EAWAG has a strong history of applying this type of basic research to fundamental social problems through collaboration with policy makers, industry, and education. One of my goals is to experience this process firsthand, which will impact how I communicate my research to the public in the long run."

Following her Fulbright year, she will be headed to Princeton University. "I want to continue studying how microorganisms interact with metals from a chemical perspective.  My career goal is to perform this research in a way that yields the greatest scientific and social contributions, and I am particularly interested in how scientists can most effectively inform and enable effective environmental policies," says Luxem, who is also a recipient of this year's Mabel Beckman Prize, awarded annually at Caltech's commencement to a woman who has achieved academic excellence and demonstrated outstanding leadership skills, a commitment to personal excellence, good character, and a strong interest in the Caltech community.

Written by Kathy Svitil