PULLMAN, Wash.—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.
She credits her parents, Bree and Derek Swanson, for always supporting her and “pushing (me) to do my best.
“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 accomplishments are many.
She took classes as a high-school senior through the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Chukchi campus and became a certified nurse’s assistant. She worked with elders in the local long-term care facility, where she gained medical experience, built relationships with patients, and had long conversations with elders about their Iñupiaq culture; one that especially values civility, integrity, and consensus, she said.
She mentored youth, helped with food donations, and worked for the regional Native health services organization. She was an advocate for a youth suicide prevention campaign that “gave me the strength to speak up on important topics, and knowledge to use in the future as a healthcare professional.” She volunteers at the WSU Children’s Center and is in the WSU LSAMP organization for STEM students.
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 which assist a global transition toward a greener future.” She will innovate fungal solutions, for example, to replace single-use plastics, environmental remediation, and pollution prevention.
“Transitioning to academia, I intend to earn a Ph.D. in metabolic engineering with a focus on mycology.” She wants to someday “help develop myco-engineering as a subdiscipline of bioengineering and mentor the next generation of scientists.”
One of her goals is to find which fungi best break down specific pollutants. She will “share that information with disenfranchised communities to empower them to remediate their land, promoting a healthier relationship between local communities and their regional ecosystem,” she said.
Her mom, Deb, is her biggest supporter, “is an honorary Coug my eyes”, and moved from Kearney, Neb., to Pullman to be near her daughter during college.
“Earning recognition as a scholar with Udall is a tremendous honor,” Ayers said. “I am most excited to be connected with the Udall alumni network to work toward innovations that promote environmental stewardship and a connection between society and our environment.” Ayers has already logged notable accomplishments in that arena.
As a student at Central Community College in Columbus, Neb., she “grew” a 2.3-meter (7’6”) canoe (that floats!) from a fungus (mycelium) which she called the Myconoe. The canoe also 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 articles and stories.
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, Wash. 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.”
At a recent SURCA undergraduate research symposium, Ayers earned a top crimson award for her research proposal project in applied sciences titled, “ Mushroom mechanics: An analysis of fungal biomaterials for wild bee conservation.”
Media contacts: April Seehafer, Director, Distinguished Scholarships Program, 509-335-8239 email@example.com