COE Students Earn Prestigious NSF Fellowships

Friday, April 12, 2024

Ten students associated with UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering (COE) have received prestigious five-year graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Fellows selected for the 2024 Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) will receive three years of financial support, totaling $159,000 in the form of an annual $37,000 stipend and an annual cost-of-education allowance of $16,000 paid to the graduate degree-granting institution for tuition and fees. Fellows also receive opportunities for international research and professional development. This year, 2,037 students nationwide were offered fellowships, including eight current UCSB PhD students with ties to the COE, and two recent UCSB graduates. 

The fellowship will allow Joyce Passananti, a second-year computer science PhD student, to extend her cross-disciplinary research to explore the intersection of art and technology, particularly in designing tools specifically for artists and creators. Co-advised by Tobias Höllerer, in the Computer Science Department, and Jennifer Jacobs, in the Media Art and Technology Program, Passananti explores how mixed reality can transform complex design systems into immersive experiences that leverage and even reinforce existing craft knowledge. She says that she is grateful that NSF values and supports her work to shape future developments in collaboration with existing communities.

“My research will rely on collaboration with artists and craftspeople and ensure that new tools are designed to enhance creative practices, not replace them,” said Passananti, who graduated from the University of Chicago with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and media arts and design. “As technological advances continue to expand artistic capabilities, I hope my work can lower the barrier for artists of all backgrounds to participate in and shape this expansion.”

Advised by materials assistant professor Raphaële Clément, Tyler Pennebaker received a fellowship to continue his work facilitating the movement toward cleaner energy sources. The second-year PhD student uses nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to study solid electrolytes in an effort to develop all-solid-state batteries that would be safer and more energy-dense than current lithium-ion batteries.  

“I am deeply honored to have been selected for the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program,” said Pennebaker, who entered graduate school after working at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and completing his bachelor’s degree in physics from UCSB. “During my fellowship, I am eager to make meaningful contributions to the scientific community both through my research endeavors and by participating in the wonderful outreach programs within the community.”

Co-advised by mechanical engineering associate professor Elliot Hawkes and chemistry professor Javier Read de Alaniz, Sophie Paul’s research at UCSB brings together materials science and soft robotics. The graduate fellowship will allow her to continue developing polymers that reversibly change shape upon irradiation with white light. Made by leveraging 3D printing, the polymers can be fabricated into sunlight-responsive soft robots, with applications ranging from wearable technology to bio-inspired devices. 

“I am thrilled to have the potential impact and importance of my research recognized by the NSF,” said Paul, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University after double-majoring in materials science and engineering, and art. “This fellowship will enable me to translate advances in polymer chemistry beyond the lab and into real-world applications where they are needed.”

A second-year PhD bioengineering student, Zsofia Szegletes said that she was honored to receive a fellowship and grateful to all of the mentors who helped her along her academic journey. Szegletes, who is advised by chemical engineering and bioengineering assistant professor Siddharth Dey, studies the mechanisms that drive epigenome changes during differentiation of stem-cell into primordial germ cells. 

“In my research, I seek to advance the understanding of epigenetic mechanisms in human development and cell-fate decisions, which has potential implications in understanding other highly dynamic epigenetic systems, such as cancer,” explains Szegletes, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering at Cornell University, “I am extremely motivated by the NSF’s support to continue my research and push the limits of scientific knowledge.”

As part of his NSF-funded research, Vade Shah, a second-year electrical and computer engineering (ECE) PhD student who is advised by ECE professor Jason Marden, will design online algorithms for matching markets, a well-studied model of how members of two groups form partnerships, or matches. Historically, he explains, these tools have been applied to identify desirable matches between residents and hospitals or organ donors and recipients. The algorithms in his work, however, will be designed to find matches in large, fast-paced online marketplaces, like Google Search, with a strong focus on maintaining privacy.

“On an academic level, receiving the GRFP encourages me to continue exploring my research interests and further supports my decision to pursue a career in academia,” said Shah, who received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley. “On a personal level, I feel grateful for those who supported me academically and emotionally en route to this award.”
Haarika Manda is one of the only first-year PhD student from UCSB to receive an NSF graduate research fellowship this year. Co-advised by computer science professors Elizabeth Belding and Arpit Gupta, Manda focuses her work on eliminating the “digital divide” through data collection and analysis. Currently, Manda is assessing the effectiveness of federal programs, such as the Connect America Fund (CAF), in addressing internet equity throughout the United States.

“I am honored to be chosen for a fellowship, because it allows me to continue pursuing impactful research in computer science,” said Manda, who received her bachelor’s degree in electrical, electronics and communications engineering from India’s Birla Institute of Technology and Science, PIlani. “I am extremely thankful to my advisors, who supported me throughout the application process as a first-year graduate student.”

Louisa Cornelis is another first-year graduate student from UCSB who received a fellowship. Pursuing a PhD in physics, she is a member of electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Nina Miolane’s research group. As part of her research project, Cornelis will develop cutting-edge methodology to analyze proteomics data for women’s brain health, with the goal of developing foundation models for the treatment and diagnoses of disease that uniquely and disproportionally affect the female population. Proteomics, the study of the entire protein composition of an organism, has recently been transformed by new scientific instruments, resulting in datasets measuring the expression of tens of thousands of proteins, compared to the few hundreds available before. Using geometric artificial intelligence, she will analyze large proteomics datasets over time in order to understand frontotemporal dementia in women, specifically to solve the mystery of why the cognitive decline in women is so much steeper than it is in men. 

“Receiving this fellowship feels like a pivotal milestone that is setting the stage for the start of my PhD,” said Cornelis, who graduated from Scripps College with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and physics. “This fellowship has bolstered my confidence in my ability to design and carry out an ambitious research project. I am excited by the opportunity it provides to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to exploring the questions and challenges that inspire me, and cannot wait for what lies ahead in the Geometric Intelligence group here at UCSB.”

Another NSF Fellow, Emily Gemmill, is a PhD student in UCSB’s Biomolecular Science and Engineering Program, studying border clusters from Drosophila ovaries to investigate the mechanics behind collective cell migration. Gemmill has ties to the COE, serving as a Quantitative Mechanobiology Fellow, which is an interdisciplinary predoctoral training program run by the Bioengineering Department and supported by a training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Mikolaj Godzik was also accepted into the GRFP. He graduated with a biology degree from UCSB’s College of Creative Studies last year and worked as an undergraduate researcher in Dey’s lab developing a novel spatial transcriptomics protocol for live cells. Eugune Li, who is currently a second-year chemical engineering PhD student at the California Institute of Technology, also received an NSF fellowship. He completed his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at UCSB in 2022. 

The NSF also issued honorable mention as an academic recognition to meritorious applicants who did not receive fellowship awards. Among the 1,716 students who received honorable mention this year, seven of them, who are listed below, have connections to the COE, including six who are current PhD students at UCSB. 

The GRFP is the nation’s oldest fellowship program that recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students pursuing research-based graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The program is intended to ensure the vitality and diversity of the nation’s scientific and engineering workforce, inspiring future contributions to research, teaching, and scientific innovation. Students can apply to the program before beginning or early in their graduate studies. On average, about 13,000 students submit applications each year. Of the more than 60,000 graduate research fellows who have received GRFP funding since 1952, nearly 50 have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and more than 450 have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. 

Honorable Mention
Sean Bohling – Mechanical Engineering
Gianna Gathman – Bioengineering
Surendra Ghentiyala – Computer Science * 
Dylan Pollard – Chemical Engineering
Kathryn Shaffer – Materials
Guy Wilks - Computing
Justin Yun Materials
*Graduated from UCSB, now pursuing PhD at another institution

Related People: 
Raphaële Clément, Tobias Höllerer, Jennifer Jacobs, Siddarth Dey, Elizabeth Belding, Arpit Gupta, Elliot Hawkes, Jason Marden
Eight current UCSB PhD students with ties to the College of Engineering have received prestigious fellowships from the National Science Foundation.

2024 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recipients (Clockwise from top left) Joyce Passananti, Tyler Pennebaker, Sophie Paul, Zsofia Szegletes, Vade Shah, Haarika Manda, Louisa Cornelis, Emily Gemmill