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National fellowship supports tomorrow’s engineering leaders

Highly competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program gives Arizona State University students opportunities to conduct impactful research — and brings students to ASU from across the country

Above: The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program supports students who show promise to become research, teaching and innovation leaders. This year, fellowship awardees include students in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, while others from universities across the country decide to come to the Fulton Schools to pursue their graduate research. Graphic by Lucas Schneider/ASU

Every year since 1952, competitive graduate students from all over the country apply for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Those selected fellows can choose to attend any accredited U.S. university to attend to conduct their research.

As they have for years, the NSF selects graduate students from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University to participate in the prestigious program, many of whom elect to remain at ASU because of their previous research experience, access to award-winning faculty and the dearth of experiences they gain by conducting research in one of the nation’s most comprehensive engineering programs. Fellows from universities across the country choose to come to the Fulton Schools to fulfill their fellowship for the same reasons.

In the fall, approximately 15 students will be conducting their NSF GRFP fellowships at the Fulton Schools, conducting research on a variety of engineering and STEM education topics.

For students who are passionate about research and advanced scientific study, the NSF GRFP is the pinnacle of opportunities. The NSF GRFP fellows are seen as budding experts who “can contribute significantly to research, teaching and innovations in science and engineering.” The five-year fellowship program funds graduate students with a three-year stipend of $34,000 plus a $12,000 allowance for education costs.

The financial support and freedom to choose the institution best suited to them is crucial to enabling many students to focus on their research, often on advanced experimental topics, and relieves the need of maintaining a separate job outside the university during their graduate studies.

The ASU Graduate College administers the award for fellows who attend ASU and provides a $750 allowance per tenure year to support their research, in addition to funding for tuition, fees and health insurance.

To further assist ASU students applying for the NSF GRFP program, the ASU Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships developed a one-on-one advising and mentorship service to help students produce successful applications for the program.

Students chosen for the highly competitive program tend to go on to be highly successful in their careers. These students become professional and academic engineers who improve society through technological innovation and other advances that enhance national security and economic well-being.

Graduate Research Fellows come to ASU for innovative research opportunities

Marion Bellier, who studies water desalination, came to ASU for graduate school after earning a bachelor’s degree in nanoscience from Virginia Tech. 

“Finding a great mentor was key in my search to pursue my graduate studies and I was lucky to find a wonderful adviser, Francois Perreault,” Bellier says.

Perreault, an assistant professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of the six Fulton Schools, encouraged Bellier to apply for the NSF GRFP. She finished her application a mere 15 seconds before the deadline. It paid off.

Bellier had a strong research record up to this point, working in labs in the departments of Forestry Resources and Environmental Conservation as well as Materials Science Engineering and Geosciences at Virginia Tech. Though she didn’t have the highest grade point average, Bellier hasn’t let that stop her from seeking competitive opportunities, and she believes others in her position should have ambitious goals.

“Being named an NSF Graduate Research Fellow has shown that my previous research has not been insignificant and has given me unexpected recognition,” Bellier says.

Bellier’s research focus is on water desalination. With Perreault’s research group, she is developing a nanotechnology-enabled solar desalination system that uses a membrane distillation as a separation process. She previously conducted research with F. Marc Michel, an associate professor of nanoscience at Virginia Tech, on the catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide on platinum nanocatalysts. Bellier has published two research papers on the topic.

With the Graduate Research Fellowship, Bellier has many additional opportunities for networking and finding careers with national governmental agencies or in postdoctoral positions.

“During my fellowship, I hope to take greater leadership roles and perhaps help to inspire someone else, especially someone who similarly may not have the strongest grade history, but who remains greatly determined to not let that refrain them,” Bellier says. “I don’t believe [GPA] should determine someone’s potential and believe that experience and diversity in experience also shows great character and determination.”

Rachel Gorelik will be starting her graduate studies in materials science and engineering at ASU in the fall, after completing her bachelor’s degree in materials engineering from the University of Arizona. She was attracted to the Fulton Schools for her Graduate Research Fellowship work because of the many ongoing projects in innovative and fundamental research.

“The materials science and engineering faculty, in particular, have an emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration within their work, which was a significant part of my original decision to major in materials science and engineering,” Gorelik says.

Gorelik decided to apply for the NSF GRFP during her undergraduate senior year when her mentors, one of whom had been an NSF fellow, encouraged her to seek funding early for her graduate studies.

“When I learned about the NSF fellowship, it really seemed like a perfect opportunity to pursue my passion for fundamental research along with the freedom to choose projects tailored toward my specific area of interest,” Gorelik says.

Gorelik’s research focus as an undergrad spanned a diverse range of applications, including water filtration, acoustics and additive manufacturing. The most interesting project she worked on involved modeling ion diffusion for solid-state lithium-ion batteries.

“Working on this project, I learned about the expanding potential of computational materials within the area of energy storage,” Gorelik says. “Since then I have been interested in studying battery technology with the objective of increasing overall usage of renewable energy, an area on which I am planning to focus at ASU.”

With the fellowship, Gorelik says she looks forward to dedicating her time as a graduate student in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy to interesting and meaningful research that can advance the fundamental knowledge of energy storage.

Taking his Fulton Schools foundation to Stanford

Justin Huxel, who graduated from ASU in May with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering, took advantage of research opportunities as an undergraduate that honed his skills in preparation for graduate school.

The summer before Huxel transferred to ASU from Central Arizona College, he participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates program in which he studied silicon processing for photovoltaics applications at the Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest, the largest center for research, education and outreach on the societal aspects of nanotechnology in the world, which is based at ASU.

When he enrolled at the Fulton Schools, Huxel participated in the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, conducting photovoltaics research with renowned solar energy researcher Zachary Holman, an associate professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

Being named an NSF Graduate Research Fellow is a recognition of Huxel’s determination, hard work and accomplishments.

“I see this honor as the National Science Foundation investing in my potential to conduct impactful research in the future while giving back to my community,” he says.

As a community college transfer student, he encourages others to see that “success can be found anywhere.”

“While going to a ‘good’ school can certainly help you achieve your goals,” Huxel says, “a determined community college student will often go further in life than an indifferent Ivy League student.”

Huxel says he is driven by the goal of making a brighter future through advances in renewable energy.

“Perovskite solar cells show great promise to be a cheaper, more sustainable technology than the silicon solar cells you can find on your house,” Huxel says. “However, they suffer from severe chemical and mechanical instability. If I can help address this issue, solar energy will continue to become more economically viable and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.”

This fall he will continue his research on perovskite solar cells at Stanford University to experience a different part of the country — out of the heat of the desert Southwest — and take advantage of Stanford’s leading materials science research program.

Having been involved with outreach and tutoring while in community college, he also plans to spend time helping the next generation of engineers by continuing to participate in outreach to younger students, particularly transfer students or students interested in applying for fellowships.

Huxel hopes to one day be a professor or researcher for a national lab, which he believes the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship will help him achieve.

“A recognition of this level early on in my graduate career allows me freedom in research topics and to pick from virtually any research group,” Huxel says, adding that focusing on conducting research rather than writing proposals or working as a teaching assistant could help him publish more papers.

“A strong publication record is critical in landing increasingly competitive professorships or national lab positions,” he says.

Graduate Research Fellows see opportunities to advance research at ASU

ASU biomedical engineering graduate student and Graduate Research Fellow Jarrett Eshima began conducting biomarker research during his first year at ASU with Barbara Smith, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering.

Eshima developed his research skills through work in the Smith Laboratory, through his Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative experience and as part of his biomedical engineering capstone project. His lab work, which included independent research and leadership roles, resulted in two research publications for which he is the lead author and three conference presentations.

These accomplishments inspired a passion for research that Eshima believes was key to winning a GRFP fellowship.

“Throughout my undergraduate studies, I had many opportunities both in the laboratory and classroom to tackle problems and questions beyond my knowledge,” Eshima says. “The ability to work logically through unexpected challenges has proven to be a highly valuable skill in a research setting.”

He chose to conduct his fellowship at ASU because of “the overwhelmingly positive research environment in Dr. Smith’s lab and the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering in general.”

Eshima’s graduate research will focus on using systems biology to identify new diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic targets for neurological disorders.

“Frequently, a patient’s response to disease treatment is partially determined by the speed and accuracy of the diagnosis. I was drawn to disease diagnostics and biomarker discovery research after seeing these limitations firsthand in the clinic, as my father battled a number of serious health conditions,” Eshima says. “This emerging scientific approach [of systems biology] can be advantageous because it is largely free from bias and captures unforeseen differences due to disease.”

In particular, Eshima will focus on advancing the scientific understanding of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, and open new doors for accurate ALS diagnostics and therapeutics.

“As a result of the knowledge gained in the Fulton Schools and at ASU, I felt fully prepared to undertake the challenging research that will drive the field of diagnostics forward,” Eshima says. “The collaborative environment and vast array of faculty expertise at ASU will undoubtedly support my research endeavors as I move forward toward realizing these goals.”

Eshima wants to continue to conduct postdoctoral research on diagnostic and therapeutic methodology and eventually become a professor.

Like Eshima, ASU electrical engineering graduate student Brent Wallace was inspired to pursue research by an excellent mentor. Once he met Armando Rodriguez, a professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, “the rest was history.”

Wallace founded an ASU rocketry organization his first year at ASU, which sparked his love for designing and controlling high-performance vehicles, but he didn’t know much about the engineering behind this passion.

“I visited Dr. Rodriguez during his office hours looking for answers,” Wallace says. “That was one of the most important conversations of my professional career.”

Recognizing his ambition, Rodriguez guided Wallace to conduct graduate-level research as an undergraduate to challenge himself and produce high-quality work in the field of control systems and robotics. Control systems allow engineers to influence the performance of everything from thermostats to spacecraft.

“When SpaceX re-lands a rocket booster, it looks like magic. It’s actually control systems,” Wallace says. “This mind-boggling field of study instantly enveloped me. Not much has changed since.”

Rodriguez’s mentorship was the main reason Wallace chose to stay at the Fulton Schools for his fellowship.

“Dr. Rodriguez is the one who fostered my love of research and pulled all-nighters to help me craft a winning application,” Wallace says. “I owe my success to him and the ASU faculty. The choice of ASU was a no-brainer.”

As a fellow, Wallace hopes to develop new mathematical theory for better control of vehicles and robots in high-performance situations and to aid first responders in disaster management scenarios. He has dreams of becoming a professor to combine his passions of cutting-edge research and discovery with the drive to educate others in control systems.

“The NSF GRFP opportunity is life-changing for my career,” Wallace says. “Now I can pursue my PhD research to its full potential.”

About The Author

Monique Clement

Monique Clement is a lead communications specialist for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She earned her BA in journalism from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. For seven years before joining the Fulton Schools communications team, she worked as an editor and journalist in engineering trade media covering the embedded systems industry. Media contact: [email protected] | 480-727-1958 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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