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Four College of Engineering Students Receive Esteemed Fellowships from the NSF Graduate Research Program

Clockwise from top left: Becca Huber, Stephanie Call, Bridget Benner, Jacob Davis

Becca Huber, Stephanie Call, Bridget Benner, Jacob Davis

Four College of Engineering graduate students, two from the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department and two from the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department, have been awarded prestigious fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The MIE fellowship recipients are Bridget Benner and Jacob Davis, while the ChE recipients are Becca Huber and Stephanie Call.

According to the NSF, “Fellows benefit from 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 advisors for the four NSF fellowship recipients are MIE Professors Yahya Modarres-Sadeghi (Benner) and Krish Thiagarajan Sharman (Davis) as well as ChE Professors Shelly Peyton (Huber) and Lauren Andrews (Call).

As Modarres-Sadeghi said about Benner, “Bridget started her Ph.D. studies in my lab in September 2019, and she has been very productive already, with one published journal paper and two more ready to be submitted. Her Ph.D. work is on a project on fluid-structure interaction of vertical-axis wind turbines.”

Modarres-Sadeghi went on to explain that vertical-axis wind turbines have been considered recently as a viable option for future offshore wind energy. He said that one of the major challenges for making vertical-axis turbines feasible is lessening their flow-induced instabilities as they become larger and more flexible. This is the topic of Benner’s Ph.D. work.

“Bridget has all the necessary qualifications for a successful career as a Ph.D. student, and a future in academia, with a very strong background and successful research experience,” said Modarres-Sadeghi. “Not only is Bridget an exceptional student, but also a passionate mentor. She has recruited some undergraduate students to the lab already and has worked with them on their independent study projects.”

As Sharman said about his advisee, “I have known Jacob (Jake) Davis initially as an undergraduate student enrolled in a rigorous graduate level course on dynamics of waves (MIE 597DW) that I offered in the Fall of 2018. He excelled himself in the course and got the highest score among all students who did the course. Since Fall 2019, he has been a Ph.D. student in my group at UMass Amherst, supported by the College of Engineering Dean’s Fellowship with matching contribution from my start-up grant.”

Sharman also noted that “Jake is academically very bright and motivated, and his success in the NSF GRFP competition attests to these attributes. Along with focusing on academic rigor, Jake is also active in professional service. He has volunteered for a number of conferences on campus and in the Boston area, hosts our group’s seminar program, and is an integral part of the team that is designing our wave-current laboratory.”

Sharman explained that the NSF fellowship topic proposed by Davis is related to studies of mooring lines in bio-fouled environments and has important implications for offshore engineering as well as the emerging blue economy markets.

In addition to those comments from the advisors for Benner and Davis, MIE Professor Erin Baker pointed out that they are the third and fourth IGERT/Wind Energy Fellows to get NSF GFRP fellowships (following Destenie Nock and Hannah Johlas). Benner and Johlas were also students studying in the Wind Energy Research Experience for Undergraduates.

Peyton explained that her advisee “Becca Huber is a first-year chemical engineering Ph.D. student in my lab who came to us from the University of Delaware. Becca has excellent experience in research from her undergraduate institution, working with April Kloxin on determining why some breast cancer patients have relapsed many years after they appear to be cancer-free.”

Peyton pointed out that “In my lab, Becca will apply that expertise to study why aggressive breast cancers so frequently metastasize to the brain. A fellowship from the NSF will allow her creative flexibility to tackle the biggest questions in metastatic breast cancer.”

Andrews described her advisee Call as “a remarkable second-year Chemical Engineering Ph.D. student in my lab and is leading a new research direction in my group. Stephanie is working to develop a platform that leverages synthetic biology and genome engineering tools to elucidate how we can control and prevent biofilm infections on implanted biomedical surfaces, such as catheters, by modulating expression of genetic targets.

While at UMass, Call has also been actively involved in developing and presenting hands-on K-12 modules about her synthetic biology research and has been gaining teaching experience both in the classroom and in lab mentoring settings.

Andrews added that Call “completed her B.S. in Chemical Engineering at the University of Tulsa while participating in competitive Division I rowing. At UT, Stephanie was at the top of her chemical engineering class and also the top university wide student athlete, for which she has received numerous awards.”

In addition to the remarks about Call from Andrews, her advisor, Peyton added that “Stephanie’s project will use next-generation CRISPR (gene editing) technology to uncover the genes responsible for bacteria mechano-sensing of soft surfaces. This will lead to a generation of novel non-fouling materials for applications in clean water and biomedical implants.” (May 2020)

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