15 UD students, alumni earn support for future work

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) recently awarded fellowships to a University of Delaware graduate student, six members of UD’s just-graduated class of 2019 and eight additional UD alumni.  Seven students and five alumni received honorable mentions.

The GRFP recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. It is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind. Since 1952, NSF has funded over 50,000 Graduate Research Fellowships out of more than 500,000 applicants. Past recipients include 42 Nobel Prize winners as well as startup founders, best-selling authors and many other successful individuals.

NSF Fellows receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees (paid to the institution), opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

The UD Graduate student and six members of UD’s just-graduated class of 2019 named as NSF Fellows in 2019 all studied in the College of Engineering, and one was a dual major with a major in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment.

“The GRFP program provides the most promising scholars with the resources needed to pursue research topics they find inherently interesting,” said David Martin, associate dean for research and entrepreneurship in UD’s College of Engineering.  “The projects they work on often are the most challenging and rewarding, since they can reach out in areas where the ideas go beyond the support of traditional funding mechanisms.  We are proud that so many of our students and alumni have been able to take advantage of this incredibly prestigious and competitive opportunity.”

UD’s 2019 NSF Graduate Research Fellows

Luke Nigro, mechanical engineering (grad student)

Nigro is a current graduate student at UD. He plans to further develop and refine the state of ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) prescription and design.

“Currently my advisers, lab mates, collaborators, and I are working on modelling and designing rate-responsive AFOs that can alter their material properties and stiffness based on how quickly the person moves through the use of shear thickening fluids,” he said. “So many people with ankle impairments use these devices for support and stability when walking, but we can do much better when it comes to making them work optimally with the natural human body.”

Nigro is advised by Jill Higginson, professor of mechanical engineering, and Elisa Arch, assistant professor of kinesiology and applied physiology. “Initially, I wanted to pursue biomechanics from the sports science side of things, but I was inspired by Dr. Arch to research assistive device designs for physical therapy and rehabilitative purposes,” Nigro said. He also recognizes his undergraduate mentor — John Challis, professor of kinesiology at the Pennsylvania State University — for introducing him to biomechanics research.

Nigro appreciates the number and diversity of lab groups, departments, and professors that he gets to work with.

“Just in my two years at UD, I’ve worked with physical therapists, mechanical engineers, sports scientists, certified prosthetists, chemical engineers, and will soon be working with a US government research group,” he said. “That’s amazing!”

Nigro gives back each year as UD celebrates National Biomechanics Day in April. Each year, local high school students visit UD’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus to explore the world of biomechanics through hands-on activities and lab demos.

The following members of the class of 2019 earned NSF fellowships and plan to pursue research in the following fields and graduate schools:

Kelley Marie Kempski, biomedical engineering, Johns Hopkins University

Kempski is headed to Johns Hopkins University to pursue a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering. She will study in the Photoacoustic and Ultrasonic Systems Engineering (PULSE) lab.

At UD, Kempski has been mentored by Jill Higginson, professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering. Since Kempski was a first-year student, she has done research in Higginson’s Neuromuscular Biomechanics lab.

“Dr. Higginson taught me how to think for myself and how to create new research projects and follow them through start to finish,” said Kempski. She was drawn to Higginson’s research on stroke rehabilitation, an area she has a personal investment in because of her Aunt Peggy, who lost the ability to walk after suffering a stroke. “Over the past three years, my Aunt Peggy inspired me to analyze gait to improve walking after stroke resulting in four journal publications, ten conference presentations, two REUs (research experiences for undergraduates) and an immense appreciation for the value of research in clinical practice.”

During Kempski’s sophomore year, she got involved with the Perry Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides outreach programs around the country to bridge the gender gap and encourage diversity in engineering and orthopedic surgery. The Perry Initiative was co-founded by UD’s Jenni Buckley, associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Being a part of this incredible organization that she co-founded has shown me how important outreach is as well as how I can really help diversify engineering and orthopedics,” said Kempski. Since joining the Perry Initiative, Kempski has had the opportunity to teach girls in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, California, Oklahoma, Missouri, New York, and Kentucky about the importance of diversity in engineering and medicine.

Kempski was also inspired by Curtis Johnson, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who “first exposed me to my love of medical imaging in the classroom and always encouraged me to reach for my dream school,” she said.

Isabel Navarro, biomedical engineering, University of Pennsylvania

Navarro will attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall to pursue a doctoral degree in bioengineering.  There, she will study with assistant professor David Issadore. In addition to this NSF Fellowship, Navarro will be supported by a Tau Beta Pi Fellowship, a prestigious award from the only engineering honor society representing the entire engineering profession.

While at UD, Navarro did research in the laboratories of three faculty members:  Catherine Grimes, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry; Karl Booksh, professor of chemistry and biochemistry; and Jason Gleghorn, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. “The Grimes lab works on chemical biology, the Booksh Lab works on chemical sensors, and the Gleghorn lab works on a variety of cell and tissue scale biomedical engineering projects,” said Navarro. “I worked every summer and winter session in the lab!”

Navarro also demonstrated her ingenuity during her junior year when she competed in the First Step Grand Challenges competition, and her team won the Innovation Award for creating a “self-feeder” device for a boy with muscular dystrophy  in hopes that those like him can gain greater mobility and lessen the reliance on others. For fun, Navarro is also one of the top contributors to UD Cybersecurity’s Capture The Flag team, which meets every Friday.

Navarro says Catherine Fromen, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Norman Wagner, Unidel Robert L. Pigford Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, are role models to her. “They’re both very available during office hours and are easy to talk to — I think anyone who’s in one of their classes should stop by for a chat at least once,” she said.

Rachel Schaefer, civil engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Next up for Schaefer? She will attend MIT for graduate study in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“I’ll be focusing on environmental fluid mechanics and how we can better protect coasts and rivers from flooding and extreme events using vegetation,” she said.

Schaefer has spent much of the past year working on an honors senior thesis focusing on the relative impacts of ship- and wind-generated wakes on Pea Patch Island (home of Fort Delaware and a major wading bird nesting area) and how the wetland vegetation on the island can attenuate ship wakes. She has completed this work under the advisement of Jack Puleo, professor of civil and environmental engineering, who she calls an inspiring teacher, researcher, and mentor.

“His commitment to research, teaching, and outreach showed me how important it is to publicize research results and consider the real-life implications,” said Schaefer. Schaefer traveled to Mérida in Mexico and Washington, D.C. to present her senior thesis work at conferences. “Writing and defending a senior thesis has been a really challenging but interesting experience.”

Being a Telkes Distinguished Scholar gave her the time and freedom to explore different areas of civil engineering, explore research, and do a senior thesis. The scholarship is named after Dr. Maria Telkes, a prolific scientist in solar energy, for potential in research.

Schaefer has also worked with civil and environmental engineering professor Michael Chajes on a research project investigating vibrational, solar, and wind energy harvesters to power road lighting on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. As a member of the University of Delaware chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Schaefer traveled to Malawi in 2016 to implement a water project. She credits Kim Bothi, Director of Global Engineering, for showing her the importance of fully understanding the context and societal implications of research and engineering projects. Schafer also represented UD at the Global Grand Challenges Summit in the summer of 2017, which helped shape her views on how to approach engineering problems.

Laurel Schappell, biomedical engineering, University of Delaware

Schappell will pursue a graduate degree in biomedical engineering at UD. Eventually, she plans to attend medical school to pursue an MD degree with the eventual goal of conducting translational biomedical engineering research in a clinical setting.

She found a home in UD’s biomedical engineering department, which began in 2015.

“The small, relatively new nature of the department has cultivated a close-knit community that has made my college experience much more memorable,” said Schappell. “Through a number of engineering-centered organizations and BME-focused events like the annual BMES [Biomedical Engineering Society] conference, I have been able to develop as an engineer alongside some of my closest friends, an experience that has been unique to BME.”

Schappell joined the laboratory of Jason Gleghorn, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, in her sophomore year. “Research quickly became an escape from the theoretical nature of many of the engineering core courses and I welcomed the opportunity to apply engineering principles to clinical problem,” she said. “Dr. Gleghorn’s encouragement to pursue a graduate degree along with a leaning toward engineering problem solving over patient care have significantly altered the direction of my future and inspired me to pursue a career focused on biomedical engineering research.”

Assistant professors Chris Price and Sarah Rooney have also helped Schappell with guidance on how best to achieve her goals.

Schappell also had the opportunity to study abroad in Italy during the winter session of her sophomore year and has competed on the club swim team for the past four years.

Evan Underhill, chemical engineering, Princeton University

Next year, Underhill will pursue a doctoral degree in chemical engineering.

“My research interests lie at the interface of biology, medicine and engineering, a field that is very well represented at Princeton,” he said. “In particular, I’ve been keen on tissue engineering for wound healing or artificial organ development, a research focus still in its adolescent stages that is quickly shaping up to make science fiction a reality.”

At UD, Underhill has been mentored by Prasad Dhurjati, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, with whom he recently published a paper in PLOS One about spatial and temporal dynamics in the gut microbiome. Underhill has also done research with Eleftherios T. (Terry) Papoutsakis. “Both of these mentors were integral to my academic development, and my work with Dr. Papoutsakis in particular ignited my interest in biotechnology research and solidified my decision to pursue an advanced degree,” said Underhill.

While a UD student, Underhill embarked on a study abroad trip to Italy and a service trip to Ghana, where he worked with local farmers on an agricultural development program, helping to clear land for corn production and harvest palm fronds to rebuild roofing structures. “Both of these trips were transformative and would not have been possible without the organization and financial assistance of UD,” he said.

Shailja Gangrade, environmental engineering (College of Engineering) and marine science (College of Earth, Ocean and Environment), University of California-San Diego

Having graduated on Saturday, June 1, Gangrade will pursue her doctoral degree at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego. There, she will work with biological oceanography professor Peter Franks to understand dissolved oxygen and diel vertical migration boundary depths of marine organisms in the southern California Current Ecosystem.

Gangrade got her first taste of ocean research during an undergraduate research project, hydrogeologic field sampling in a tidal salt marsh, with associate professor of geology Holly Michael. Then she worked with associate professor of marine science and policy Arthur Trembanis and went on an oceanographic research cruise with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “I then became very interested in physical-biological interactions in the ocean (thanks to my technical experience in engineering, and my biological experience in marine science),” said Gangrade. “The idea that the oceans are so unexplored and that small-scale variations can have very large impacts – these ideas have really sparked my future graduate research.”

Joanna York, assistant professor in marine science, “has also been so supportive and a huge inspiration for me to continue as a woman in STEM,” said Gangrade. Environmental engineering professor Dan Cha helped Gangrade navigate class scheduling, a challenge for double majors.

While a student at UD, Gangrade studied abroad in New Zealand and Brazil, utilized an Honors Enrichment Fund to travel to Ecuador to conduct research and lived in California to do summer research internships. She also led service trips with University of Delaware Alternative Breaks (UDaB) and served on the executive board of the Club Sailing Team. Read more about Gangrade in this UDaily profile.

Alumni Awardees

The following UD alumni will also continue their graduate research through the fellowship:

Erica Comber, biomedical engineering, Carnegie-Mellon University

Sarah Hartman, environmental engineering, currently a Fulbright Research Scholar

Kyle Lennon, chemical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Michelle Lepori-Bui, biological oceanography, University of California-Santa Barbara

Erica Loudermilk, environmental engineering, University of Virginia

Victoria Muir, biomaterials, University of Pennsylvania

Aline Szenczy, developmental psychology, Stony Brook University

Cedric Whitney, science policy

Honorable Mentions

An additional 12 UD undergraduate or graduate students and alumni earned honorable mentions:

Current UD graduate students

Maximilian Cohen, chemical engineering

Megan Dang, biomedical engineering

Stephanie Matz, chemical engineering

Katrina Milbocker, neurosciences

Members of the class of 2019

Rachel O’Sullivan, biomedical engineering

Bailey Weatherbee, developmental biology

UD alumni

Margaret Billingsley, biomedical engineering, University of Pennsylvania

Matthew Hurlock, cell biology, Johns Hopkins University

Brittany Lewis, human computer interaction, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Charlie Lin, chemical engineering, Purdue University
Kimberly Rivera, ecology, University of California-Berkeley

Amanda Studnicki, biomedical engineering, University of Florida

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