Seven students receive 2024 NSF GRFP awards

The record number of award recipients underscores the department's exceptional quality of education and research.
Seven students receive 2024 NSF GRFP awards

2024 NSF GRFP recipients: (top) Liam Cotter, Nicholas David, Daniel Delgado. Bottom: Caroline Harms, Reegan Ketzenberger, Nina Perry and Davy Zeng.

Seven MSE students -- five graduate and two undergraduate -- received Graduate Research Fellowships (GRF) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2024. The NSF GRF Program’s goal in offering these fellowships is to bolster a diverse and globally-engaged U.S. science and engineering workforce. 

With seven recipients, this year sets a record for MSE: the most NSF GRFP winners in one year in recent memory.

"The fact that seven MSE students were awarded prestigious NSF graduate fellowships underscores the exceptional quality of education and research opportunities we provide here at U-M," said Associate Professor Geeta Mehta, chair of the MSE graduate program. "These fellowships not only recognize the academic prowess and potential of these students but also highlight our unwavering commitment to fostering excellence in materials research."

Mehta went on to add that this year's success most likely correlates to the department's efforts to actively coach students applying for national awards like the NSF GRFP through bootcamps, a panel with successful NSF and other national award winners, and the opportunity to be paired one-on-one with a faculty member in a similar research area to provide critical pre-submission feedback.

"I think this infrastructure is important for ensuring success for our award winners," stated Mehta.

 Listed below are the 2024 award winners with a brief description of their research.


Liam Cotter '24, matriculating to Stanford to pursue PhD in MSE
The ovarian tumor microenvironment facilitates a high rate of recurrence and mortality by accelerating disease progression and metastasis. Fluid accumulation within the peritoneal cavity, an abdominal space that houses the ovaries and other internal organs, follows ovarian cancer. The Mehta Lab hypothesizes that breathing and other movements can engender currents within this fluid that exert elevated fluid shear stress on the tumor. We use tissue engineered constructs and a fluid shear stress bioreactor to recapitulate the mechanical and transport properties of the ovarian tumor microenvironment. This allows us to probe the response of tumor-resident cells to fluid shear stress stimulation in an effort to understand the mechanisms of ovarian cancer progression and highlight targets for novel therapies.

Nicholas David, 2nd year PhD student in the Sun group
In the modern age of computational materials discovery and design, hypothetical materials with superlative functional properties are routinely predicted in silico, which stimulate experimental efforts to synthesize these novel high-performance materials in the laboratory. However, there is currently a poor scientific understanding of what makes a predicted material synthesizable, or the best way to synthesize it. Hence, rapid prediction of novel materials is often followed by months of trial-and-error experimental efforts which are time-consuming, wrought with uncertainty, and often require an element of serendipity for success. My goal is to unravel those enigmatic, surprising aspects of chemical synthesis, using insights from both computation and theory, guided by big materials data. In addition, to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in higher education, I am leveraging natural language processing (NLP) methods to provide data-driven insights into graduate applications.

Daniel Delgado, 2nd year PhD student in the Dasgupta group (ME)
Daniel is exploring sustainable engineering solutions directed at combatting the damaging effects of continual greenhouse gases emissions. In his research, Daniel applies novel nanomaterial synthesis techniques with the goal of answering the question--how can we create cleaner procedures for generating the fuels that power our economy? Towards this endeavor, he explores both electrochemical and photocatalytic routes for CO2 recycling, as well as investigating the mechanisms for light-induced ammonia synthesis. By pushing the boundaries of scientist's mechanistic understanding for sustainable chemical catalysis, Daniel hopes that it will inspire a push towards the implementation of cleaner fuels.

Caroline Harms, 1st year PhD student in the Pena-Francesch group 
My research takes inspiration from nature to develop functional polymeric coatings that tailor interfacial interactions and behavior. More specifically, I seek to address currentantifouling limitations with respect to adhesion, durability, and scalability through the design of multilayer coatings that prevent biofilm formation across length scales. These coatings make use of dopamine derivative chemistries and designer crosslinking agents to enable robust and indiscriminate coating-substrate attachment, improve the coatings’ overall mechanical properties, and facilitate benign hydration-mediated repulsion of foulants. While my work is primarily intended for environmental and healthcare applications, its projected insights into adhesive mechanisms and the structure-property relationships that dictate antifouling performance will broadly elucidate interfacial phenomena that are still not well understood. 

Reegan Ketzenberger '24, matriculating to University of Colorado to pursue PhD in ME
Traditional methods of hydrogen production such as coal gasification and natural gas steam reforming rely on fossil fuels, but electrolysis, the reaction that involves splittingwater with an electric current to produce hydrogen and oxygen, offers a clean alternative. My proposed research project seeks to understand the impact of porosity and tortuosity of sintered titanium porous transport layers on titanium passivation and in situ mass transportation limits in proton exchange membrane electrolyzers. Scanning electron microscopy is used to characterize surface morphology, capillary flow porosimetry is used to characterize porosity, x-ray computed tomography is used to characterize tortuosity, and electrochemical testing such as electrochemical impedance spectroscopy can be used to connect these material properties with cell performance.

Nina Perry, 1st year PhD student in the Marquis group
My research aims to uncover and understand the mechanisms behind phase transformations and microstructural evolution in high entropy alloys (HEAs) and their impact on properties. These materials exhibit unprecedented mechanical properties that have opened new possibilities in designing structural alloys that can sustain harsher environments. Existing research into HEAs has fixated on single-phase solid solutions and properties stemming from their chemical complexities, ignoring the alloys’ potential for novel microstructures. However, my research has indicated that some HEAs undergo phase decomposition offering unique microstructures at low and intermediate temperatures. Thus, I hope to use characterization techniques, including transmission electron microscopy and atom probe tomography, to study the mechanisms behind these transformations. This constitutes an uncharted materials research frontier whereby unlocking a wider range of desirable material properties lies in the potential to tailor HEA microstructures.

Davy Zeng, 1st year PhD student in the Dasgupta group (ME)
My research is about studying the complex chemo-mechanical interfacial phenomenon associated with solid-state battery degradation. The two major failure mechanisms of lithium metal batteries are void formation and dendrite shorting, both of which occur due to imperfections at interfaces within the cell. Atomic layer deposition is a technique that allows for the deposition of nanometer thick conformal coatings. I will use these coatings to tune the surface energy of the interface, with the goal to promote even lithium deposition and alleviate the issue of dendrite shorting. Ultimately, this will allow for the commercialization of solid-state batteries and help facilitate the electrification of the transportation sector in our fight against climate change.