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  April 23, 2001

Outstanding Scholars Drawn to UConn
From Across Nation, World

The students profiled were selected from a pool of 30 first-year doctoral students in the Outstanding Scholars Program. The program provides a $7,000 stipend for the academic year from the Graduate School and a half-time graduate assistantship from the department or program. The award is renewable for up to a total of three years.

Growing up in Corvallis Oregon, a small city south of Portland, Andrew Townesmith, now a doctoral student in botany, raised a large, luscious garden: gooseberries, peas, beans, apples, plums, and carrots.

So, at a young age he was already on a natural path leading to the study of food plants and life as a vegetarian.

In 2000, that path brought him to UConn and the ecology and evolutionary biology department. He was attracted, he says, by the department's excellent program and the prospect of having a close working relationship with his advisors.

"There weren't too many universities where I could find a potential advisor who shared my interests in ethnobotany and food plants," he says.

The keen interest Townesmith has had since his youth in food plants, and particularly the wild foods used by Native Americans in the Northwest, is now developing into an interest in the origins of agriculture. "Agriculture has played an important role in human history," he says.

Before coming to UConn, he received a B.A. with a major in biology and anthropology from Grinnell College, located in the farmbelt state of Iowa.

A first-year doctoral student, Townesmith came to UConn with a high score on his graduate record exam. He scored 800 out of a possible 800 on the test's analytic section and in the 700s on the verbal and mathematics sections.

At UConn, Townesmith is focusing on the study of ethnobotany or plants used primarily by people for food and medicine.

"Most all of the media attention is going to the medicinal benefits of plants," he says. "My interest, however, is on the food side."

Townesmith says he expects to carve out a research career in academia. It may be too soon to know where his post-doctoral journey will take him, but the chances are good that his research may lead to some new discoveries.

It could be in his genes. A great-uncle, Charles Townes, was a Nobelist in physics for inventing the maser, the precursor to the laser. Townes is an astrophysics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Colorado-native Laura K. Baumgartner may come from a landlocked state, but that didn't deter her from spending six weeks in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean a few years ago.

Her experience during a Sea Education Association program at Woods Hole, Mass., a leading marine biology laboratory, put her on a direct course to UConn and the marine sciences doctoral program.

"I had a passing interest in oceanography, and the program opened the whole oceanographic world to me," says Baumgartner. "Six weeks in the middle of the Atlantic really helped me gain considerable experience with both the research and the environment."

Marine sciences also held a certain appeal for her because it could combine microbiology and aquatic ecology, she says, and that can be difficult to do.

The combination led her to UConn and the Avery Point Campus and advisor Pieter Visscher.

"The marine sciences department has good researchers and allows me to have a big-picture focus," she says.

Baumgartner's interest in marine sciences dates back to 1993, when she was a high school student, in La Junta, some 60 miles east of Pueblo. It was then that she first took part in the JASON Project, a sea-science program begun by researchers from Woods Hole that tapped into classrooms throughout the United States.

A graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder with a combined bachelor's and master's degree in environmental biology, Baumgartner later co-taught the Woods Hole sea-science program during the summer months to gifted elementary children in her hometown of La Junta.

Her undergraduate days took her to La Seva, Costa Rica, to research the feeding behavior of stingless bees. Among the findings were that bees have food scouts and that there's competition for food among different hives.

While pursuing a master's degree, Baumgartner conducted research on the effects of sulfur cycles in bacterial mats in coastal environments at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder.

Now at Avery Point, Baumgartner's goal of a career in marine sciences research appears to be headed for clear sailing.

The message on Kang Yahui's answering machine is in English and Mandarin - just in case her parents call from Shijiazhuang City, China, to talk with their only child.

It's an old world courtesy, perhaps, for this doctoral student who came to the United States and UConn last year to learn new ways and pursue an advanced degree in communication sciences.

As a teaching assistant for a University communications course - COMS 102 - Yahui leads two discussion

sessions weekly and in doing so also hopes to build closer relationship s with her students.

"I love to spend time with my students and love teaching itself," says Yahui. "The sessions give me an opportunity to learn about the young American generation.

In her first class, she says, she told them, "You are the students in this course, but in daily life you are my teachers."

Before coming to the United States, her daily life in China was focused on education and, at a younger age, on sports.

As an elementary school student, she participated in sports meets and excelled in the high jump and the 3000-meter run, winning several championships. Because she excelled in sports, government officials overlooked the rule that students had to attend school in their home district. Instead, Yahui was admitted to the best high school in Shijiazhuang City.

In high school, she continued to win high jump championships, but in her senior year, on the advice of a teacher, she put sports aside to concentrate on her studies.

"Sometimes people need to give up something if they want to achieve more," says Yahui.

During her high school days, she covered sports as a student reporter in the News Center of China Radio International. Under the supervision of a seasoned news staff, she also edited news reports from other parts of the world. The student assignment piqued her interest in a communications career.

She received a bachelor in economics from Beijing Broadcasting Institute in June 2000, ranking each semester first in a class of 22 students for the four years of study.

On the advice of Chinese and British educators, she headed to the United States where, she was told, she could study the most advanced theory and methods in the communications field.

Accepted by several universities, including Cornell, Syracuse, and the University of Oklahoma, she selected UConn because the program focused the most on the social and cultural aspects of communications.

Says Yahui: "A communications professor at Cornell also recommended UConn. He said I would not be disappointed if I enrolled here. I believed him and he was right."

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