Indiana State University Newsroom

Indiana State grad student awarded NSF fellowship

April 24, 2015

With the recent award of a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship to a Sycamore, Indiana State University is now mentioned in the same breath as Harvard and Princeton.

The prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program provides three years of financial support for science and engineering students such as Lindsay Forrette, a first-year biology Ph.D. student at Indiana State. It's the first fellowship for a current student at the university. (Alumna Petra Hendrickson, '08, received an NSF fellowship to conduct research at Michigan State.)

Forrette of Chicopee, Mass., found out about the honor on April Fools Day. She was checking her email before teaching her morning classes and saw there was a message from NSF.

"My first response was, ‘I have to get through four hours of teaching.' If this is bad, I can't see this now," she said. "I closed it, and halfway through my second section, my students were working independently."

So, she opened her email again and clicked on the message.

"I read, ‘Congratulations,' and I sat there and got a big smile on my face. Once I got out of class, I forwarded the email to Dr. (Elaina) Tuttle and Liz (Metzger, contracts and grants specialist at the university)," Forrette said. "I still can't believe that they were interested in my work and my proposal. I'm very honored to have them select me."

During a time when any research funding is scarce, these graduate research fellowships often go to Ivy League students.

"It's very difficult to get grants at all, and the fact that NSF has been able to hold onto this program is pretty good, but it makes it even more competitive," said Tuttle, professor of biology at Indiana State. "I have no doubt she'll be successful in anything she does. I'm just really honored to be her graduate advisor. And I'm really happy she choose ISU."

Forrette came to Terre Haute after working as a field assistant for Tuttle during the 2012 and 2013 seasons when she was a student at the University of New England. Tuttle has conducted research on white-throated sparrows at Cranberry Lake in New York each summer for the past 27 years.

"She's one of the best nest-finders and observational people we've had. She always asked questions - deeper questions about the science, why they do this," Tuttle said. "She's got the right mind, the right dedication. She would work and work and work and work until she dropped. The things you need to be successful are the drive to want to work and dedication to want to know why. And she's got those."

These qualities, combined with the fact Forrette published a whopping six academic papers from her undergraduate research, made her an ideal candidate for NSF, said Tuttle, who has participated on NSF review boards.

Forrette's research will focus on social behavior, communication and genetic aspects of the white-throated sparrows -- specifically, the Major Histocompatibility Complex, a group of genes that control a large portion of the immune system, and odor.

"That's what I initially wrote the NSF grant for -- how (MHC) relates to odor, mate choice and communication," Forrette said. "Projects often change over time. You might walk in with a particular idea, but maybe it isn't feasible or maybe it's better to do it in another way."

Forrette's research could build on previous findings of Tuttle's regarding the composition of preen oil, a waxy secretion that birds spread on their feathers while they're grooming. She's interested in learning whether the oil -- and its volatiles -- have a role in communication through olfaction.

"We see differences in preen oil volatiles between males and females, as well as between seasons. Some of these volatiles are elevated in males during the breeding season, whereas they're not so much in females," Forrette said. "The white-throated sparrow is polymorphic, and there's a genetic basis for a bird with white plumage versus tan plumage, regardless of its sex. It's possible that differences in morphs and sex in volatiles may be linked to MHC genes and allow individuals to tell each other apart. For the Tuttle lab, these findings are so new that I'll be the first graduate student to examine whether there are links being genetics, odor and communication."

Tuttle says she's excited about Forrette combining fieldwork with genomics -- experience that will make her well prepared for her professional ventures.

"It's going to make her be very integrative. She's not going to just do fieldwork, she's going to do a combination of field and lab and behavior and molecular," Tuttle said.

With the NSF fellowship, Forrette receives a stipend that allows her the flexibility to not teach, if she chooses, which would give her additional time for research and attending conferences.

But Forrette enjoys her time in front of a classroom, so she's hoping to work out a compromise with the department, where she might continue teaching one or two classes a semester.

"I really enjoy working and interacting with students. And I don't want to lose that experience completely," she said.

As natural as Forrette is in the field, she's similarly effective in the classroom and is willing to go the extra mile for her students, according to Tuttle.

"She's going to be an excellent faculty member. I definitely see her as a teacher-scholar," Tuttle said. As the semester winds down, Forrette's next step will be managing a "brisk" summer schedule, with fieldwork that starts in May, which is when the white-throated sparrows migrate to Cranberry Lake.

"The summer months are critically important, because we study a breeding population that only breeds May through August," Forrette said.

Then, she'll have a week off before starting classes -- and starting to analyze the data they collected -- in August.

"In field research, ideas often look great on paper, but then you get out in the field and it's more like, ‘I'm not sure this is going to work.' So, it often takes some troubleshooting the first year," Forrette said. "It's really important to see which parts of your project work and then modify your procedure and methodologies from there. And I'm excited to get going as soon as I can."


Photos: -- Indiana State University graduate student Lindsay Forrette works in a classroom lab. -- Indiana State University graduate student Lindsay Forrette was recently awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation research fellowship. -- Indiana State University graduate student Lindsay Forrette works in a classroom lab. -- Indiana State University graduate student Lindsay Forrette was recently awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation research fellowship.

Contact: Elaina Tuttle, professor of biology, Indiana State University, 812-237-2838 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or