WSU undergraduates receive Udall scholarships

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Washington State University Pullman students Katy Ayers and Jessalyn Swanson are the latest recipients of prestigious, nationally competitive Udall Undergraduate Scholarship awards.

The Udall Foundation awards scholarships to college sophomores and juniors for leadership, public service, and commitment to issues related to Native American nations or to the environment. From 46 institutions a total of 55 Udall scholars were chosen nationwide this year, with 37 in the environmental category, nine in tribal public policy, and nine in Native health care.

Ayers is WSU’s first Udall recipient in the environment category, and Swanson is the fifth in the Native American health care category. They bring the Udall awards total number to 12 since 2015.

“Udall is incredibly competitive and we are proud of our newest scholars,” said April Seehafer, director of the Distinguished Scholarships Program, part of the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement in the provost’s office.

Swanson: Future physician in rural Alaska

Swanson, a rising junior and biology/pre-med major minoring in human development, plans after spring 2025 graduation to study medicine and become a pediatrician or family doctor and provide health care for her rural community. A Native Alaskan and member of the Iñupiaq tribe, she was raised in Kotzebue in the state’s northwest.

“I was raised to believe that I can make a difference as long as I worked for it. My Iñupiaq culture taught me to be strong and resilient and to overcome the obstacles we face every day being an Alaskan Native. My community has pushed and supported me to accomplish all that I have done throughout the years.” 

Her invited participation on an Adverse Childhood Experiences program in her hometown led to research centered on teenage perspectives in her community and provided insight into how to work with school officials and medical providers to stop generational trauma and prevent it in the future. She also coordinated a four-team, youth softball program in Kotzebue in summer 2022, securing funding, organizing volunteers and family members, staging a tournament, and making plans for the effort to continue in future years. These and other experiences helped her see how she can give back to youth and promote healthy living, and in a few years support her community further as a physician. The Udall award will move her toward that goal.

“Receiving the Udall (scholarship) is a huge accomplishment for me,” she said. “Being recognized for my leadership and commitment on issues affecting Native Americans is the most rewarding feeling. Knowing that I have had an impact on my community only pushes me to want to do more and hopefully, along the way, inspire others to do the same.”

Ayers: Environmental stewardship and fungi

Katy Ayers, a rising senior and bioengineering and biochemistry major minoring in mathematics, plans to work toward developing new fungal products to assist the global transition toward a greener future. She will develop fungal solutions, for example, to replace single-use plastics, help clean the environment, and prevent pollution. She intends to earn a a Ph.D. in metabolic engineering with a focus on mycology, and someday hopes to be a mentor to the next generation of scientists.

One of her goals is to find which fungi best break down specific pollutants. She then intends to share that information with disenfranchised communities in the hope that it will empower them to remediate their land.

As a student at Central Community College in Columbus, Nebraska, Ayers “grew” a 2.3-meter (7’6”) canoe (that floats!) from a fungus (mycelium), which she called the Myconoe. The canoe used papier-mâché molds, an inner wooden skeleton, and a hammock. Still alive, it’s been displayed at the Nebraska State Fair for four years. It even won her an invitation in 2019 from Guinness World Records for the longest fungal mycelium boat. Her work has been featured by NBC News, Buzzfeed News, Ripley’s Believe It or Not (2022), and many other media outlets. 

Ayers transferred to WSU primarily because of its Honey Bee and Pollinator Research and Education program, associated with the Dept. of Entomology and headquartered near Othello, Washington. Her mentors are Nick Naeger and Jennifer Han.

“I use a medicinal fungus to hold together agricultural waste materials. The material is grown in molds to make bee hotels. I hope to uncover if the medicinal fungus offers a medicinal benefit to (bee) pollinator populations.”

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