ST. GEORGE — A St. George native recently received the National Science Foundation fellowship, which will take her from the University of Utah to Princeton University next fall to study chemistry.
Lydia Fries, a senior at the U, fell in love with science while attending Dixie High School. Since 2018, Fries has been working in an on-campus lab with electrochemists through the U’s ACCESS program while completing her degree. At Princeton, she will study and work in a lab with a focus on photochemistry, which Fries hopes will lead to a career in sustainable chemistry.
Chemistry works like a puzzle, Fries said, and that’s what keeps her motivated and interested in this field.
“I’ve always been a STEM person, but I feel like it’s almost like a puzzle,” Fries told St. George News. “You’re putting pieces together and most of the time, it’s pretty hard and it doesn’t work 99% of the time. But when it does, it’s like, ‘Wait, this is what I’ve been working for.’ That’s, I think, the thing that I really like.”
At the lab at the U, Fries has been learning how to use electricity, instead of dangerous chemicals and toxins, to synthesize medicines and drugs. Princeton conducts similar processes using photochemistry instead of electricity. These processes are seen as the two most sustainable chemistry fields, and Fries said she is motivated to explore safer chemistry.
“I think it’s pretty important and necessary,” Fries said. “A lot of times when you hear about sustainability, you hear about it on a small scale, like plastic water bottles and straws. If you can change the way we make plastic water bottles or straws or change the ways the processes that leave a big carbon footprint work, that’s a bigger scale.”
Fries is one of 11 University of Utah students to receive the NSF graduate fellowship, which supports outstanding doctoral and research-based master’s students doing research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The fellows will receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 in addition to $12,000 for tuition and fees and numerous research and professional development opportunities.
Because the fellowship recipients are a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, Fries said that she didn’t expect to be selected as a winner. The news was a surprise to her and she said the stipend will help a lot with the costs of studying at Princeton.
“It’s pretty hard to get as an undergrad,” she said. “When I got it, my initial thing was, ‘This will just be my test run,’ but I got it so I don’t have to apply again.”
Studying at an Ivy League institution is one thing, but Fries has always been drawn to the East Coast. Having been born and raised between San Diego and Utah, she said she’s excited to see something different. In her spare time, Fries enjoys hiking, rock climbing, skiing and backpacking, and she said she’s excited to explore New York City, the Appalachian Trail and paddleboarding opportunities near Princeton.
When she thinks back on the time she’s spent at home in St. George, Fries said her favorite thing about the area is Snow Canyon, and she visits the state park almost every time she comes home.
“I really liked growing up in St. George,” she said. “It was a great place to be a kid and teenager. By the end of high school I felt like going somewhere else, but I never appreciated how beautiful it is there.”
Dianne Perusse, Fries’ mother, told St. George News that even though Princeton isn’t exactly close to home, Fries seemed to vibe with the program at Princeton almost immediately after being introduced to it. She added that with programs like NSF and the ACCESS program located here in Utah, STEM opportunities are very accessible to women like Fries who are interested in those fields.
“This is a great time to be a woman,” Perusse said. “I hope that especially girls realize that these are great fields for women, especially now.”
As a parent, she added, it’s important to see Fries have a good job, but even more important to see her do something she enjoys. Perusse said that Princeton will provide an inclusive opportunity for Fries beyond just an educational one.
“I feel like they really value her talent and they feel like she’ll be a great part of the group,” Perusse said. “It’s one thing just going, but it’s another to be part of a group.”
Fries credited her high school teacher Mark Dickson with introducing her to STEM, the ACCESS program and the U. Fries took Dickson’s Advanced Placement biology class at Dixie High and participated in the Science Olympiad. While in his classes, she also won the school’s science Sterling scholarship and the regional equivalent.
Dickson told St. George News that he remembers Fries as his go-to person whenever he needed something done.
“Whatever event or project she worked on, she always did whatever it took to succeed,” he said.
Dickson recommends students every year to the U for the ACCESS program, and Fries was one of his successful recommendations. The program accepts more students from Dixie High than any other high school in Southern Utah, Dickson said, and Dixie High is asked every year to recommend students. Dickson said he encourages all his students to try STEM fields.
“Generally, I have noticed that women tend to choose health careers and men are more likely to choose engineering, physics and chemistry,” he said. “It’s nice to see that Lydia has chosen organic chemistry.”
Fries said that being accepted into the ACCESS program and later hired by the lab gave her multiple opportunities that other students might miss out on. Because of the time she’s spent researching, she’s come much closer to realizing her goal of becoming a university chemistry professor or a chemist for a pharmaceutical company where she can integrate electrochemistry and photochemistry into real-life chemical processes and make them more sustainable.
“My big advice would be get into research as quickly as possible,” she said. “I feel like that’s something that makes you stand out and Utah schools offer that other places wouldn’t.”
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