Three UCA alumni chosen for prestigious science fellowship

Three University of Central Arkansas alumni have been selected as part of the 50th class of Science and Technology Policy Fellows by the American Association of the Advancement of Science.

Destiny Davis, Heather Masson-Forsythe and Jordan Wilkerson, all graduates from UCA’s Norbert O. Schedler Honors College and the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, will spend the year helping to inform actionable, science-based policies throughout the U.S. government. The fellowship learning experience officially began on Sept. 1 and ends on Aug. 31, 2023. 

Davis will spend a year serving at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Masson-Forsythe will serve her fellowship at the National Science Foundation while Wilkerson was placed at the U.S. Department of Energy. 

AAAS fellows pose with the UCA president and Honors College Dean

UCA President Houston Davis (l) greets AAAS fellows Destiny Davis, Jordan Wilkerson and Heather Masson-Forsythe and Schedler Honors College Dean Patricia Smith at a UCA Now event in Washington D.C.

“Thousands of people apply for this fellowship every year,” said Patricia Smith, dean of the Schedler Honors College. “Anyone in the U.S. at any stage of their career with a Ph.D. in a STEM field is eligible. I thought it was pretty spectacular when I heard we had one alum selected for the fellowship but then I learned three Honors College alums were selected!”

“It did not occur to me that I was going to have a rekindling of a friendship with someone I knew at UCA. I was pleasantly surprised,” Wilkerson said. “This is very impressive because a lot of the other people I’ve met in this fellowship are Ivy Leaguers through and through – and while I’m not saying this as a personal value judgment, society considers them top tier schools – but for UCA to be alongside those with not one but three fellows is a big deal.” 

The trio are among 300 scientists and engineers selected for this prestigious fellowship will learn first-hand about federal policymaking and implementation. At the same time, the U.S. government benefits from the contributions of these highly trained professionals. 

“I was thrilled when I found out,” Wilkerson said. “It is a very competitive process, so I knew it was not guaranteed.” 

When Wilkerson came to UCA, he was initially focused on the planning and administration track in the environmental science program. He later shifted gears to organic chemistry and graduated from UCA in 2013. He earned his doctoral degree in atmospheric chemistry from Harvard University. He was also a postdoctoral writing fellow and has written dozens of science-related articles for various news outlets. As a graduate student and professional, Wilkerson’s research has been aimed at understanding the earth’s atmosphere and how humans have changed it.   

“The fact that I was able to take all the science I learned both at UCA and in graduate school and go back into that policy realm – which was my initial plan over a decade before – is fantastic,” Wilkerson said. “It really is an excellent way for someone with a scientific background to get their foot into the policy realm and government public service realm. I am very grateful for the opportunity.” 

Davis, who earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from UCA in 2012, moved to California after graduation to continue her research. In 2020, she earned her doctoral degree in plant sciences at the University of California, Davis. 

“I learned to not shy away from the scary things because they probably have the biggest benefit,” Davis said. “If it doesn’t scare you a little bit, it’s probably not a big enough step. The application process was thorough with multiple layers. Every time I found out I made it through to the next round, it got more and more exciting.” 

Serving a yearlong assignment at the U.S. Botanic Garden in the executive branch of the federal government, Davis will build a portfolio that includes increasing scientific engagement in the research community, offering public scientific programs, serving as science editor for the USBG and assisting in communicating its scientific mission to its congressional oversight and appropriations committees.

Masson-Forsythe graduated from UCA in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in biology. While studying for her doctorate degree in biochemistry and biophysics at Oregon State University, she used a variety of molecular biology and biophysical methods to answer biological questions related to cataracts and COVID-19. 

“After you’re a finalist, you go through a week of lots of interviews,” Masson-Forsythe said. She had 18 different interviews. “I really liked all of them, but I was very excited when I found out I placed with my first choice.” 

Throughout her graduate work, Masson-Forsythe  worked on Inspiration Dissemination, a live radio show, podcast and blog interviewing Oregon State University graduate students about their research and career paths. She is also a contributing writer for ASBMB Today, the member magazine for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“I felt like the National Foundation was a good fit for me,” Masson-Forsythe said. “They wanted their AAAS fellow to work on telling NSF impact stories, and I am really passionate about science communication. This role allows me to use my science communication skills.”

The 2022-23 fellowship class is sponsored by AAAS, the Moore Foundation and partner societies. Of the 300 fellows chosen, 31 will serve in Congress, one will serve at the Federal Judicial Center, and 268 will serve in the executive branch among 19 federal agencies or departments.

After the fellowship, many remain in the policy arena working at the federal, state, regional or international level, while others pursue careers in academia, industry or the nonprofit sector.

The STPF program has an app where fellows can interact and connect with their classmates. They can see one another and find out who has similar interests. Davis noticed a ‘2’ next to the UCA category. 

“I thought, ‘No way!’ So I clicked on that,” Davis said. “I already knew Jordan. Heather and I connected through the app then I met her at orientation.”

“We were surprised initially that there were three of us in the fellowship,” Masson-Forsythe said. “But as we talked about it, we agreed this process was a very Honors College thing to do. We all have science degrees, but just doing scientific research wasn’t enough for us. We were all interested in giving back to the community and use our science skills for broader, public access impacts. That is not an uncommon perspective to have coming from the Honors College.”