OWU Student Wins ‘The Holy Grail’ of Science Awards

By Gretchen Hirsch

Sean Williams’ field work in ornithology was part of his winning application for a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Grant. (Photo by Pam Burtt)

Sean Williams ’11 has been selected to receive a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

These pre-doctoral awards are more typically presented to graduate students, but the Foundation cited Williams’ “outstanding abilities and accomplishments” in recommending him for the Fellowship.

The Fellowship includes a $30,000 annual stipend, a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance, international travel and professional development opportunities, and access to the TeraGrid scientific supercomputer network.

Since 1952, NSF has provided Graduate Research Fellowships for about eight percent of those who have applied. Of those who were funded, more than 30 have become Nobel laureates, and more than 440 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to the NSF grant, Williams, a pre-professional zoology major from South Boston, has been awarded a University Enrichment Fellowship from Michigan State University, where he will pursue his doctorate.

Fewer than 5 percent of accepted graduates receive this fellowship, which includes a stipend and health insurance.

“For undergraduate students, the NSF Fellowship is the Holy Grail,” says Edward H. “Jed” Burtt, Williams’ mentor throughout his OWU career. “However, Sean has the two qualities necessary to win it; he is absolutely passionate about his subject, birds—he just can’t learn enough about them—and he has the dedication and discipline to carry that passion into creative, cutting-edge science.

“I think of him as a colleague,” Burtt continued. “We have published together, and this spring, we lectured together at Wheaton College and the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The Wheaton invitation came to me, but the Audubon Society invitation came to Sean. We decided that since the two lectures were only a couple of days apart and not far from each other, we’d do them together.”

As Burtt points out, Williams is well-known in his own right. “I expect that that he will finish four papers for publication this summer, and he’s the lead author of an article published last September in Birding magazine,” Burtt said. “He’s presented three posters and three oral papers at national meetings of different ornithological societies. He’s scheduled to give another paper in July. He’s the only undergraduate ever to serve on a working committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union. That appointment didn’t come about because of me; he was invited by the chair of the committee, and Sean told me about it later.”

“Sean has also edited a complete volume of the Ohio Cardinal, the state ornithological journal, which meant summarizing the observations from A to Z for birds in Ohio during 2010—the distributions of all species that breed, winter, or migrate through the state and all rare bird sightings. I was surprised he took that on because it’s a tremendous amount of work. I wasn’t surprised, but very pleased, at what a great job he did with it.”

Williams is thrilled with his selection for the Fellowship. “On reflecting on the achievements that merited the award, I attribute every opportunity to the encouragement and guidance from the Zoology Department and the University as a whole,” he says. “The NSF reviewers were particularly pleased with the presentations at national meetings. … My research in Costa Rica was equally impressive [to them], which was funded by the Theory-to-Practice program. I am … confident that I could not have achieved more at any other university in the country.”

Williams plans to work “on the conservation and ecology of birds in the tropics,” he says. “This summer I have an Early Start Fellowship, which will allow me to go to Panama with my adviser at MSU to explore a field site for a potential study. In November I plan to go to Peru with my adviser to attend the Neotropical Ornithological Congress.”

“Sean’s work throughout his college career has been exceptional,” says Rock Jones, president of Ohio Wesleyan. “The amount and quality of research he has produced is noteworthy, and the University community is delighted with the recognition that has come to him.”