KU News Release


September 19, 2012
Contact: Sharon Graham, Self Graduate Fellowship, 785-864-7249

KU announces new Self Graduate Fellows

Blair Benson


Regis Dowd Jr.


Jeffrey Hirst


Erik Hornberger


David Minnick


Christopher Neal


Zachary J. Raff


Kathy Roccaforte


Cate Wisdom


LAWRENCE — Nine doctoral students have been selected to receive the University of Kansas’ prestigious Madison and Lila Self Graduate Fellowship as they begin the 2012-2013 academic year. The 28 current Self Graduate Fellows are among 140 students who have benefited from the fellowship since it was established.

Self Graduate Fellowships are four-year awards to new or first-year doctoral students who demonstrate leadership, initiative and a passion for achievement. The fellowship covers full tuition and fees, provides a $29,000 annual payment to new fellows and includes a unique development program. The Fellow Development Program provides general education and training in communication, management and leadership to assist Self Fellows in preparation for future leadership roles, complementing the specialized education and training provided in doctoral programs.

The fellowship’s mission is to identify and recruit exceptional doctoral students who demonstrate the promise to make significant contributions to their fields of study and society as a whole.

Madison "Al" and Lila Self of Hinsdale, Ill., launched and permanently endowed the Self Graduate Fellowship in 1989, motivated by their strong belief in the vital importance of developing leadership for tomorrow. Madison Self is a 1943 KU graduate in chemical engineering. Lila Self is a native of Eudora and attended KU with the Class of 1943.

The new Self Graduate Fellows:

Blair Benson, geology, has an innate curiosity for blending geophysics and archaeology to develop noninvasive techniques for identifying and excavating archeological sites. She spent three summers working for the National Park Service’s Midwest Archeological Center, Lincoln, Neb., and has worked at several National Parks across the Midwest, including Hopewell Culture National Park, Ohio; Knife River Indian Villages, North Dakota, and Fort Scott, Nicodemus National Historic Site and Fort Larned, all in Kansas. Benson is conducting her research at KU under the guidance of George Tsoflias, associate professor of geophysics, and Rolfe Mandel, executive director of the ODYSSEY research program at the Kansas Geological Survey and professor of anthropology. She received a Bachelor of Science in geology in 2009 from James Madison University and her master’s degree in geology in 2012 from KU. She has received numerous awards including the Catherine-King Frazier Scholarship for outstanding achievement by the most promising new major and the Philip R. Cosminsky Award while at James Madison. In 2011 Benson received a National Science Foundation GK-12 Fellowship. Benson is the president of the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) Osage Chapter, the south-central delegate for the AWG board, and co-founder and director of the KU Geology Mentor Program. Her professional goal is to advance near-surface geophysical imaging methods for private sector and government research.
Benson is the daughter of Richard Benson and Lisa Enright and a graduate of Centreville High School in Centreville, Va.

Regis Dowd Jr., chemical and petroleum engineering, still lives by the words of former President John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” After nearly seven years as a U.S. Naval submarine officer, Dowd’s goal is to work in the field of alternative energy in a way that will positively impact the United States. Dowd has a bachelor of science in chemical engineering, 2004, from the University of Florida and a master’s degree in engineering management, 2011, from Old Dominion University. In the Navy, Dowd completed the Navy’s nuclear propulsion training program to become a naval nuclear engineer. Onboard the fast-attack submarine USS Los Angeles, Dowd directed the underway watch team as the officer of the deck while successfully completing two missions vital to national security. At U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Dowd headed the Anti-Terrorism Strategic Communications Campaign to improve the Navy’s overall force protection posture. In 2009, he was awarded the Los Angeles Submarine Officer of the Year Award. He was also awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation and Achievement Medals. Dowd continues to serve in the Navy Reserves as an engineering duty officer. At the Dow Chemical Company, Dowd led various cross-functional teams in process design and was also involved in research and development projects through his cooperative education position. In the future, Dowd wants to work as a scientist in the Department of Defense, where he hopes to make a lasting impact on society through research in alternative energy.
Dowd is the son of David and Linda DeVos, Deland, Fla., and a graduate of Pinellas Park High School in Largo, Fla.

Jeffrey Hirst, pathology and laboratory medicine at the KU Medical Center, set his early sights on playing Division I soccer. After he met that goal he turned his full attention – and competitive spirit – to science. When he had the opportunity to conduct research while he pursued his bachelor’s degree, Hirst jumped at the chance. He received his B.S. in chemistry and biology (2010) and his M.S. in biology (2011) from Missouri State University. Hirst was named to the Missouri State High School Academic All-State Basketball Team in 2006 – the same year the Kansas City Star named him the Scholar Athlete of the Year. He was the Men’s Soccer Scholar Athlete of the Year at Missouri State in 2008. At Missouri State Hirst received numerous scholarships and awards, including the Dr. Norman Dobson Scholarship and the Biology Alumni Scholarship. His goal now is to pour his energy into research being conducted at the KU Medical Center that is focused on combination therapies to treat ovarian cancer. In the future Hirst wants to be a leader in industry developing new and improved cancer treatments.

Hirst is the son of Jim and Gayla Hirst, and a graduate of Fort Osage High School in Independence, Mo.

Erik Hornberger, electrical engineering and computer science, knows a thing or two about managing multiple projects. In 2012 he oversaw 24 projects carried out by nine divisions in 11 countries. He directed two teams of students building a light sport aircraft to be used to fly medical missions in developing countries and an electric motorcycle to promote sustainability. That was as an undergraduate at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. Now he is eager to do the same thing, with new knowledge, at a more advanced level. Hornberger’s responsibilities came with his position as student director of the Collaboratory for Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research. Hornberger received his B.S. in electrical engineering (2012) from Messiah and also spent one semester at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. At Messiah Hornberger was the founding president of the engineering honor society and represented Messiah to the National Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Hornberger received the President’s Academic Scholarship and was accepted to the Messiah honors program. Hornberger believes that engineers are the unsung heroes of science and society – and he is eager to become one of the leaders in engineering.

Hornberger is the son Dave and Barb Hornberger, Lancaster, Pa., and a graduate of Lititz Christian High School.

David Minnick, chemical and petroleum engineering, sees the way he has studied chemistry as a good model for his life. A balanced combination of complex problem solving, tenacity and perseverance provide the foundation for success. His current research focus is on the development and implementation of ionic liquids, a novel class of environmentally benign solvents. Minnick earned his B.S. in chemistry and a minor in economics, 2010, from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. At Creighton Minnick worked as a teaching assistant, a tutor for the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership, volunteered with Best Buddies and served on several key university committees, including the Creighton University strategic planning committee. Minnick began graduate work at KU in 2011, where he has worked as a graduate research assistant, served as an engineering graduate ambassador and acted as an officer for the Graduate Engineering Association. Minnick is eagerly pursuing his research and looks forward to applying it in an industrial setting in the future.

Minnick is the son of Matthew and Julie Minnick of Sterling, Ill., and a graduate of Sterling High School.

Christopher Neal, neurosciences, KU Medical Center, was searching for a way to combine his love for art with his passion for science in a way that could have a lasting, beneficial impact on society. When he found KU’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences, he saw a clear road. Neal has big plans to lead cochlear implant research and design teams to create better devices for the hearing impaired. Neal double-majored at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where he received a bachelor’s degree in biology and in studio art, 2011, with a focus in sculpture. At DePauw Neal received a four-year Rector Scholarship, which is a full-tuition, academic scholarship. He also was an Honor Scholar and participated in the university’s Science Research Fellows program. He received numerous awards for his art, including the Meehan Memorial Award for a senior art student. Additionally he was a member of Alpha Phi Omega and held various chapter leadership roles. As an undergraduate Neal had research internships at DePauw, Midwest Ear Institute in Kansas City, Mo., and at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. Neal also holds the rank of Eagle Scout.

Neal is the son of Susan M. Bashinski, Greenville, N.C., and John Neal, Scandia, and a graduate of Bishop Seabury Academy in Lawrence.

Zachary J. Raff, economics, is a self-defined “go-getter.” With his math and science background, experience being part of an athletic team and his time working in Washington, D.C., Raff is eager to earn his doctorate and then perhaps enter the world of politics. He received his B.S. in mathematics (2008) in three years from Upper Iowa University while also a scholarship athlete in baseball. Raff then served as a U.S. Senate intern, where he researched environmental policy issues. After a brief stint working as a technical service engineer, Raff worked as a program associate at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. He then completed his Master of Public Policy degree, 2012, from American University while also working as a research associate for the university and working as a program analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency. These experiences, combined with his lifelong love of the outdoors, were the reasons he chose to pursue a doctorate in environmental economics at KU. Raff is determined to add to the knowledge of environmental economics so that “human health and the environment aren’t compromised for short-term job growth.”

Raff is the son James and Melissa Raff of Sheboygan, Wis., and a graduate of Sheboygan South High School.

Kathy Roccaforte, ecology and evolutionary biology, is passionate about developing research projects that link fundamental questions in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology to real-world conservation concerns. She received a B.S. in biology, 2007, from Creighton University, where she studied the effects of oak savannah restoration on the dominance of garlic mustard, a highly invasive forest understory plant that poses a threat to biodiversity in Midwestern forests. At Creighton, Roccaforte won numerous awards and scholarships, including the Ferlic Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship, the dean’s award for undergraduate biology research and the biology department award for outstanding research. She also served as a teaching assistant and volunteered as a taekwondo instructor. After graduating, Roccaforte worked as a research technician at the Plant Conservation Laboratory at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, where she helped conduct research that focused on the long-term conservation of endangered Malagasy orchids. Roccaforte received an M.S. in biology, 2012, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she conducted research on hybridization, speciation and the conservation of native lilies. At UNL she received a Chancellor’s Fellowship and the school’s Arthur William Sampson Fellowship. In addition, Roccaforte served as a graduate teaching assistant and volunteered with both the Upward Bound and Research for Undergraduates in Theoretical Ecology (R.U.T.E.) programs.

She is the daughter of Bill and Jane Roccaforte of Omaha, Neb., and a graduate of Omaha Mercy High School.

Cate Wisdom, bioengineering, grew up with an interest in understanding how things work. Playing youth soccer and experiencing injuries fostered an interest in understanding how the body works and how to help the body heal itself. Wisdom has pursued these interests as an athletic trainer in high school, in college as a volunteer ski patrol member and EMT, and now will focus on tissue engineering as a doctoral student in bioengineering. At the University of New Mexico, Wisdom earned a B.S. in chemical engineering, 2011, with a concentration in bioengineering. As an undergraduate she conducted research at UNM in a chemical catalysis laboratory and at Sandia National Laboratories as a technical student intern in the On-Orbit Analysis group. Most recently she has completed a yearlong professional internship in the UNM Office of the Vice President for Research. In the OVPR, her focus was helping with collaborative research initiatives, federal relations and learning about academic research administration. As an undergraduate, Wisdom was appointed by the governor to serve on the UNM Board of Regents. As a Regent, she was vice chair of the Academic Student Affairs and Research Committee, vice chair of the Lobo Energy Inc. board and served on the New Mexico Educational Assistance Foundation board and the UNM Hospital Board of Trustees. She was a member of the student government legislative advocacy team and lobby committee, and as a member of the UNM Alumni Association Board of Directors she currently serves on the Lobos for Legislation Committee. Wisdom’s long-term vision is to connect her passions of science and leadership in the field of tissue engineering so that patients are not limited by their injuries.

Wisdom is the daughter of Ernie and Alta Wisdom, Albuquerque, N.M., and a graduate of Cibola High School.



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