Two graduate students honored with Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two Penn State graduate students, Maridel A. Fredericksen and Dana M. Tobin, have been awarded the Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award. The award recognizes excellence in master’s-level thesis research in any of the disciplinary areas of fine arts and humanities; social sciences — applied and basic; physical and computational sciences — applied and basic; life and health sciences; and engineering.

Fredericksen is enrolled in the master’s program in entomology. She is researching how the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis invades, colonizes and eventually controls the ant host it infects. The parasite causes the ant to die as it clings to the underside of a leaf or twig.

According to Fredericksen, “this strange behavior is critical for the fungus to grow, reproduce and disperse to new hosts. Conveniently, this interaction is preserved through fungus-infected cadavers that can stay attached to the plant for years and can be studied as an extended phenotype of the fungus.” Fredericksen noted that her work on the parasite’s interactions with the ant brain “will shed new light on how parasites can control the behavior of their hosts.”

One nominator stated that Fredericksen’s research “is filling a big gap in our understanding of this complex interaction. Essentially, we did not know what is happening under the skin as the fungus invades and controls its host. Fredericksen’s excellent histological work has thrown tremendous light on the system, propelling it in new directions.”

Tobin, a master’s student studying meteorology, is conducting research involving the use of dual-polarization radar observations to investigate a newly discovered signature associated with sleet formation in winter storms.

One nominator wrote that Tobin, “discovered that the radar signature descends in time, and that its intersection with the surface indicates the changeover from sleet to freezing rain. This finding not only has great practical importance, such as allowing operational meteorologists to distinguish between relatively harmless ice pellets from potentially dangerous freezing rain or ‘black ice’ situations, but Tobin was able to extend the findings and develop an innovative method to forecast this changeover time based on the observed radar data evolution.”

In several test cases, the method developed by Tobin has outperformed numerical weather prediction models in terms of accurately forecasting precipitation type changeover times. The nominator noted that “the local National Weather Service office has already expressed great interest in these findings.”

Fredericksen and Tobin were honored during the inaugural Graduate Student Awards Luncheon held on April 27 at the Nittany Lion Inn.

Last Updated April 28, 2016