14 UD students and alumni receive funding to pursue educational goals

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) has awarded fellowships to six University of Delaware doctoral students, two UD students graduating with bachelor’s degrees this spring, and six alumni who earned their undergraduate degrees at UD and are currently enrolled in graduate studies at other institutions. In addition, two students from other institutions plan to matriculate at UD to use their fellowships, and five UD students and six alumni received honorable mention recognition.

The program 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 U.S. institutions.

Along with a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, fellows benefit from international research and professional development opportunities as well as the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institute of graduate education they choose.

Since 1952, the NSF has received more than 500,000 applications and funded more than 50,000 fellowships. Recipients have gone on to win 42 Nobel Prizes, while more than 450 awardees have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.

NSF Graduate Research Fellows

  • Rebecca Davis, mechanical engineering
  • Patricia L. Hurley, environmental engineering
  • Alexandra Oliveira, chemical engineering
  • Ana Sheehan, personality and individual differences
  • Elizabeth Smith, ecology
  • Brandon Vance, chemical engineering
  • Ariel Hannum, biomedical engineering
  • Emily Mongold, civil engineering

Rebecca Davis, mechanical engineering

Davis, who is enrolled in UD’s doctoral program in mechanical engineering, plans to conduct research on quantifying muscle fatigue and assess its relationship to injury risk in baseball pitchers.

“I am passionate about athletes and their ability to perform and stay healthy,” said Davis. “I hope my research results in preventing injuries.”

Davis credits the mentorship of UD’s Panagiotis Artemiadis, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Martha Hall, director of innovation of health sciences and assistant professor of health sciences, for helping propel her toward her research goals. In addition to the valuable experience Davis gained by participating in a research rotation in Artemiadis’ lab, she said he provided immense assistance with the NSF application process. Hall helped her chart the direction she would like her research to go and will be her primary adviser going forward.

Davis earned her bachelor’s degree in applied physics at West Virginia Wesleyan College and has conducted research in a multitude of fields. During her time as an undergraduate, she worked in materials science, optics, biology and quantum physics labs.

Previously chosen as an NSF honorable mention selection, Davis has also received UD’s Helwig Mechanical Engineering Fellowship. She is planning for her project to be a step toward her career goals.

“I would like to work with a wearable technology company and continue helping athletes with injury prevention and increased performance,” said Davis.

Patricia L. Hurley, environmental engineering

A first-generation college student, Hurley is pursuing her doctorate in civil engineering with a concentration in environmental engineering at UD. She plans to study the fate of macrolide antibiotics in septic tank systems with the goal of finding out if concentrations of these compounds are high enough to threaten nearby groundwater supplies, which may be used as sources of drinking water, and learning if sorption — the physical process by which one substance becomes attached to another — plays a role in weakening of these compounds.

“I have always enjoyed learning about the environment and decided to study environmental engineering with the intent of solving environmental challenges,” said Hurley. “I chose my research topic because it can have an impact on both human health and environmental health. Through my studies, I have learned that septic tank contamination is an issue, and I hope that I can use what I learn from this project to help educate the public about water pollution.”

Along with UD’s Center for Counseling and Student Development, Hurley is grateful for the support and encouragement she has received from her Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering lab mates and her adviser, Yu-Ping (Yo) Chin, professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“Dr. Chin guided me through the process of applying for the fellowship and has helped — and continues to help — me gain the skills I need to pursue my research,” said Hurley. “He has been crucial to my success at UD, for which I am very thankful.”

Prior to enrolling at UD, Hurley earned her bachelor’s degree at Rowan University and credits Kauser Jahan, Rowan professor of civil and environmental engineering, for inspiring her to apply to graduate school and pursue research in environmental engineering. A member of the student chapter of the Delaware Section of the American Water Resources Association, Hurley received Rowan’s Ralph Alan Dusseau Medallion Award and UD’s George W. Laird Merit Fellowship.

Alexandra Oliveira, chemical engineering

Oliveira is a doctoral student in UD’s chemical and biomolecular engineering program. Focusing on electrochemical hydrogen production through water electrolyzers, she is working on a pure water hydroxide exchange membrane electrolyzer that balances the low-cost benefits of alkaline water electrolyzers and the high performance configuration of proton exchange membrane electrolyzers. Oliveira plans to explore precious metal-free catalysts and membrane electrode assemblies to optimize cell performance and durability.

“Electrochemical engineering is a very interesting approach to the energy crisis,” said Oliveira. “Hydrogen, in particular, has many unique benefits as an energy storage technology because it can be transported across continents and stored for long periods of time before being used in fuel cells. Perhaps more importantly, it can be used as a feedstock for many industrial processes, such as ammonia synthesis and steel refining, to replace more environmentally detrimental feedstocks. I find the use of the chemical engineering principles of thermodynamics, kinetic and transport together to provide solutions to energy problems very fascinating.”

Yushan Yan, Henry B. du Pont Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is her research adviser. Oliveira credits Yan for his excellent input on the key advances that are required in the field with this technology as well as his remarkable insight for her project and its importance to the field. Her primary mentor on the project, Junwu Xiao, UD visiting scholar and associate professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China, has trained her on all of the synthesis procedures and electrochemical testing equipment. Brian Setzler, postdoctoral researcher, has also played a key mentoring role by offering insight on directions in which the project could move forward.

“The University of Delaware has provided me with excellent resources and strong faculty in the area of electrochemical engineering and catalysis who can provide input and mentor me through my studies,” said Oliveira, who earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Connecticut.

After she completes her doctorate at UD, Oliveira would like to do research and design in the field of electrochemical engineering, either for energy storage and conversion devices or in the area of electrochemical corrosion.

Ana Sheehan, personality and individual differences

Sheehan is pursuing a doctorate in clinical science in UD’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Her research on personality and individual differences focuses on understanding not only why adults engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as aggression, substance abuse and suicidality, but identifying when they are most at risk for engaging in these behaviors.

“A significant barrier to reducing engagement in risk-taking behavior is our inability to predict windows of heightened risk,” said Sheehan. “I’m interested in using assessment techniques, including wearable devices and ecological momentary assessment, to track physiological and behavioral changes associated with increases in risk-taking behaviors as they occur in real time.”

Sheehan, who was awarded a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, has served as a research assistant at Brown University. Through her work at Brown, she became fascinated with how everyday technology, from iPhones to Fitbits, could be leveraged to tell us more about how risky behaviors emerge in real time.

“I think technology offers a really unique opportunity not only to learn more about these behaviors but also to inform prevention and intervention efforts targeting these pervasive health problems,” said Sheehan.

At UD, Sheehan has been mentored by Naomi Sadeh, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences. Along with Sadeh, Sheehan’s lab mates, Nadia Bounoua and Rickie Miglin, have been integral in helping her develop and conceptualize her research ideas and encouraging her to bring these concepts to the lab. She also thanked them for their support during the application process, including reviewing her submission materials.

The recipient of a University of Delaware Graduate Scholar Award, Sheehan’s career goal is to become a researcher at an academic institution or academic medical center, working on projects that integrate novel technologies to help us understand the cognitive mechanisms underlying risky and self-destructive behaviors.

Elizabeth Smith, ecology

A developing research scientist and a UD plant and soil sciences doctoral student, Smith is proud to say she wants to be a “dirt doctor.” Smith’s research focuses on quantifying soil characteristics using digital soil mapping principles and machine learning techniques. Specifically, she is quantifying the spatial distribution of soil nitrogen across the contiguous United States and providing associated uncertainties of the model.

“I wish to learn the current best practices for accessing and utilizing big data from domestic and international ecological networks specific to biogeochemical cycling, storage and transport of nutrients,” said Smith, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at Spelman College. “With such knowledge, it is my endeavor to develop and promote best practices in the coming decades by understanding emergent patterns in biogeochemical cycles and their relationships with ecosystems through predictive modeling.”

Smith is advised by UD’s Rodrigo Vargas, associate professor of ecosystem ecology and environmental change. She said Vargas has been integral to her success by offering constructive and strategic evaluations on her work progression, sharing career advice, and actively seeking opportunities external to the University for her to explore her research through the lens of others in the field. She is also appreciative of the support of her fellow graduate students and postdocs in the department.

Smith’s career plans include pursuing research that advances the knowledge base of ecological sciences and process-based modeling while also serving as a mentor to young scientists. She hopes to realize these goals as a leading researcher and subject matter expert in a national laboratory or with a federal agency.

“Ultimately, I want to help bridge the gap between science and policy by using dating mining to synthesize large datasets into readable findings for use in policy making consistent with a sustainable environment promoting health equity and social justice,” said Smith.

Brandon Vance, chemical engineering

Vance, a chemical and biomolecular engineering doctoral student, is focusing on converting polyolefins — a type of polymer — into gasoline, jet and diesel-ranged fuels, and high-grade lubricants. His primary objective is to develop fundamental knowledge pertaining to the reaction network and catalysts that facilitate those reactions.

Vance is interested in this topic because it has massive impacts to society and the environment. He said many of the technical details and challenges are new and unique to the conversion of plastic wastes.

“The plastic industry is currently founded on a linear-life model where plastics are produced, then used — usually only once — and finally discarded in a landfill,” said Vance. “This is a highly unsustainable practice that threatens the global environment and results in massive economic losses. Chemically recycling plastic waste is an effective solution to both of these problems because it converts the plastic-life model into a circular model while generating value from waste. However, chemical recycling is a young field with many challenges in its path to broad industrial implementation.”

As an undergraduate at Iowa State University, Vance worked in the field of catalysis: a modification in the rate of a chemical reaction induced by material unchanged chemically at the end of the reaction. He participated in a NASA-funded project to develop catalysts for the generation of rocket fuel used in Mars exploration, conducted biomass conversion work as a visiting scholar in Beijing, and presented academic research to members of Congress at the Posters on the Hill conference sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research.

While Vance hopes to attain a chemical engineering faculty position at a high level doctoral research university, his overarching career goals are to generate knowledge capable of addressing the sustainability issues of the chemical industry and improve the diversity of STEM programs and higher education institutions.

Ariel Hannum, biomedical engineering

Hannum is graduating from UD in May, with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering earning an Honors degree with distinction, and heading to California to enroll in a doctoral program in bioengineering at Stanford University. She is interested in the application of MRI as a tool to detect and diagnose disease in the human body.

Hannum’s research focuses on understanding what causes lower quality images in magnetic resonance elastography (MRE), an MRI technology that captures images while vibrating the back of a person’s head in order to calculate mechanical properties, such as stiffness, in the brain. She said stiffness has been shown to be associated with brain health and is used to characterize Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

Her work identifies and quantifies different sources of signal noise that exist in MRE, and her ultimate goal is to develop techniques to reduce signal noise present in images to further improve MRE as a tool for evaluating brain health. She was surprised to find out that little formal research has been conducted on assessing the noise in MRE, which is a challenging problem.

“I was introduced to medical imaging applications when I was a summer intern at Hologic, a medical device company that creates mammography systems,” said Hannum. “I was drawn to how imaging technology can help identify and diagnose disease, which can have a significant impact on patient outcomes, and want to be part of developing innovative medical imaging techniques.”

Hannum is appreciative of the mentorship provided by Curtis Johnson, UD assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who has been her principal investigator. Along with creating a lab dynamic that is open and friendly, which makes it easy to approach classmates, Johnson has provided great support for her project.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to work with resources that are not available elsewhere,” said Hannum. “Because I was trained to operate the MRI scanner, conveniently located on the main campus, I am able to independently collect my own data and run experiments, which is not common for an undergraduate student.”

Hannum, who received the Engineering Alumni Association Scholarship and was a Telkes Distinguished Scholar at UD, would like to be a professor conducting research, teaching and liaising with industry, academia and healthcare. She is interested in unifying research through collaboration to improve imaging technologies.

Emily Mongold, civil engineering

Mongold is graduating from UD in May with an Honors bachelor’s degree with distinction in civil engineering and enrolling at Stanford University in a doctoral program in structural engineering and geomechanics. Her research will be related to structural resilience and the impact of natural disasters, specifically tsunamis.

“I became interested in natural disasters and resilience in 2015 when I was in high school and did community service work in New Orleans,” said Mongold. “Helping rebuild in New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina made me realize the lasting impact these disasters have on communities.”

Mongold’s senior thesis on hurricane evacuation coincided with research conducted at UD’s Disaster Research Center. She has also performed research through the NSF Research for Undergraduates (REU) program, at the University of Washington, by using reconnaissance data from hurricane-damaged buildings to measure the accuracy of various 3D digital modeling methods.

Rachel Davidson, professor of civil and environmental engineering, College of Engineering associate dean for academic affairs, and Disaster Research Center core faculty member, was Mongold’s research adviser at UD.

“Along with giving me the chance to perform research, Professor Davidson has supported my academic and extracurricular activities,” said Mongold. “In preparation for graduate school, she helped me network and connect with faculty at other universities and gave me invaluable advice every step along the way.”

Mongold’s extracurricular activities have included participating in UD Alternative Breaks (UDaB), an organization that immerses student-led teams in direct service and experiential learning with community organizations to increase knowledge of social justice issues and encourage lifelong active citizenship. She credits this experience with enabling her to connect structural engineering principles with society-level, values-based thinking and practice social justice while gaining invaluable leadership experience.

Mongold, who received UD’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Chair’s Research Fellowship several times, as well as the Civil and Environmental Engineering Alumni Award, College of Engineering Rosario P. Award and Women of Promise Award, hopes to work in academia as a professor so she can continue to research and teach and mentor students.

Alumni awardees

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

  • Lauren Baker, mechanical engineering, Harvard University
  • Marisa Bisram, mechanical engineering, Northwestern University
  • Rebecca Huber, chemical engineering, University of Massachusetts Amherst
  • Jennifer Lawrence, neurosciences, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Wenbin Li, physics of materials, Rice University
  • Nicole Place, microbial biology, Yale University

Future UD graduate students

The following students from other institutions plan to matriculate at UD to use their fellowships:

  • Michael Gee, chemical engineering, Tufts University
  • Anne Maheux, psychology, University of Pittsburgh

Honorable mentions

An additional 11 UD undergraduate or graduate students and alumni earned honorable mentions:

Current UD graduate students

  • Neil Butler, chemical engineering
  • Ariana Cerreta, ecology
  • Mackenzie Scully, biomedical engineering
  • Morgan Sulzbach, chemical engineering
  • Ian Woodward, chemical engineering

UD alumni

  • Sarah Beamish, physiological psychology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • Anthony Campanella, chemical synthesis, Colorado State University
  • Harrison Landfield, chemical engineering, Northwestern University
  • Matthew Schmittle, robotics and computer vision, University of Washington
  • Steven Winter, disease ecology, Virginia Tech
  • Alexander Wright, organismal biology

Article by Adam S. Kamras | Photo illustration by Cindy Dolan | May 19, 2020