Evensen named 2019 Astronaut Scholar

// Engineering Physics

Tags: 2019, News, students

Photo of Brewster Shaw and Claire Evensen

NASA astronaut Brewster Shaw (BS EMA, ’68, MS ’69) with Claire Evensen at the scholarship ceremony.

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Claire Evensen’s interest in science started with food.

As a child, she spent hours in the kitchen toying with buttercream recipes, and used her babysitting allowances on candy thermometers. The science of food—the transformation of basic ingredients into fully formed meals—fascinated her, and that early love for experimentation blossomed to scientific curiosity.

Now Evensen, a senior studying biochemistry and applied mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is in elite company as a member of the 2019 Astronaut Scholars Class.

The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation awards up to $10,000 in scholarship funding to outstanding junior and senior STEM students at partner schools across the United States. Evensen is one of 52 students from 38 universities named to the 2019 Astronaut Scholar Class.

“We put so much work into college and research,” she says. “It’s an honor to see what some of these other scholars are doing and to be recognized as part of that group.”

Evensen plans to pursue an academic career in mathematical biology, and wants to use math models to understand how viruses evolve, how the body heals, how tumors spread or how neural degeneration progresses. She also plans to write books for wider audiences, as similar books have been crucial in developing her desire to pursue a career in mathematical biology.

Evensen is an undergraduate researcher at UW-Madison under Steenbock Professor in Chemical Sciences Thomas Record, where she mentors two of her fellow undergraduates.

Most of Evensen’s research has focused on the kinetics of prokaryotic RNA polymerase transcription initiation. She says transcription initiates the flow of genetic information from DNA to RNA to proteins, and offers significant opportunities to regulate gene expression. She presented her research, which found three major pause points in initiation which could respond to stress-induced breakage of major contact points between DNA and RNAP, at the 63rd annual Biophysical Society meeting. Her co-authored manuscript for the research is in revision at the journal Biochemistry.

Evensen spent summer 2019 studying under professors Philip Maini and Ruth Baker at the Wolfson Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Oxford. While there, she investigated the applications of reaction-diffusion partial differential equations to modeling neural crest cell migration.

She says defects in neural crest cell migration can lead to Hirchsprung’s disease, which can leave those who suffer from it without nerve cells in portions of their intestines.

At an on-campus ceremony, David Noyce, executive associate dean for the UW-Madison College of Engineering, lauded Evensen and fellow UW-Madison 2019 Astronaut Scholar Mitchell Wall.

“I know you’re exceptional students and exceptional researchers,” Noyce said. “You’ve shown time and time again your commitment to academics and excellent leadership, and it’s really exciting to see. Through your own unique pursuits, you are contributing to our mission here in the college, and that is to move forward scholarship.”

Author: Alex Holloway