19 UD students, alumni earn NSF funding for future research

The National Science Foundation has selected 19 University of Delaware students and alumni for its 2022 Graduate Research Fellowship program. An additional eight UD students and one alumnus earned honorable mention.

The oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the GRFP is awarded to individuals pursuing full-time research-based master’s and doctoral programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) or STEM education. Highly competitive, the fellowship includes a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees.

NSF Fellows are considered future leaders with the potential to make significant contributions to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering. Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was an NSF GRFP Fellow. So were Google founder Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, as well as numerous Nobel Prize winners.

More than 60,000 graduate research fellowships have been awarded since 1952.

At UD, which is one of fewer than 3% of U.S. institutions with a Carnegie classification of very high research activity, the number of undergraduate and graduate students and alumni selected for the prestigious fellowship has grown in recent years.

“As an R01 institution, it’s a tribute to our fundamental strength in both undergraduate and graduate programs to see so many awards recognizing our students,” said Louis Rossi, dean of UD’s Graduate College. “Some of these are undergraduates who will be continuing their studies elsewhere. Others are students who were prepared here or elsewhere and are choosing to pursue their graduate education here at UD.”

For UD’s Jackson Burns, the fellowship opportunity is exciting for more than one reason.

“I was thrilled to be offered this fellowship and even more happy when I learned that two of my close friends, Nick (Samulewicz) and Sean (Wirt), had also won,” said Burns, who graduated in May with a degree in chemical engineering and was a member of the Honors College. “The three of us are thrilled to represent Delaware, as we go to MIT this fall.”

Read on to learn about the current and future work planned by Burns, Samulewicz, Wirt and the other UD undergraduate and graduate students and alumni selected as NSF GRFP fellows.

UD’s 2022 NSF Graduate Research Fellows

Jackson Burns (Honors College) chemical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jackson Burns has been using machine learning and chemical simulations to create a ‘virtual lab bench’ for identifying ideal catalysts to support chemical reactions. Using high-throughput experimentation hardware, Burns ran hundreds of micro-scale experiments simultaneously using less resources and time to interpret experimental results and predict optimal outcomes. He credits his mentor, Donald Watson, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, for supporting him in this work. This fall at MIT, Burns will use robotics and programming to create an autonomous virtual chemist to further accelerate the pace of discovery as part of the chemical engineering and computation doctoral program.

Sarah Clerjuste, education and human development, UD

Sarah Clerjuste is a second-year doctoral student in the Educational Statistics and Research Methods program in UD’s School of Education. Advised by Christina Barbieri, assistant professor in the School of Education, Clerjuste is using her STEM education expertise to improve how math is taught. Her research focuses on helping individuals struggle less with math through improved mathematical cognition and learning methods. Specifically, she is exploring how effective revisions, combined with feedback, influence a student’s learning in mathematics. As an NSF GRFP fellow, she hopes to expand her research beyond undergraduate students to include middle school students. Following her doctoral studies, Clerjuste plans to pursue a STEM education career in academia or industry.

Kaitlyn Downer, mechanical engineering, UD

Kaitlyn Downer, who graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering, first became passionate about biomechanics research as a volunteer with the Perry Initiative, a nonprofit outreach program designed to engage high-school aged females in engineering and orthopedic surgery. There, she learned how mechanical engineering principles are used to study the human body. She subsequently spent three years modifying an adaptive treadmill for post-stroke gait rehabilitation in UD’s Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab under Jill Higginson, mechanical engineering professor. As a doctoral student at the University of Florida this fall, Downer will conduct research aimed at understanding how people control balance, which could provide greater insight into why individuals may have higher fall or injury risk.

Amanda “Mandy” Forti, chemical engineering, UD

Amanda “Mandy” Forti is a second-year chemical engineering doctoral student in Assistant Professor Aditya Kunjapur’s synthetic biology lab. Her research investigates methods for controlling the growth of engineered microbes. Forti is exploring how a synthetic microbe engineered to be dependent on an amino acid not typically found in nature will interact with its neighbors when grown in a microbial community. She hopes to determine the extent of the engineered microbe’s biocontainment when in contact with other microbes in a community, to better understand how they will behave outside of a laboratory environment. It’s an emerging field with wide-ranging application from pharmaceuticals to food to agriculture.

Spencer Grissom, chemical and biomolecular engineering, UD

Spencer Grissom, a second-year engineering doctoral student is working with chemical and biomolecular engineer Mark Blenner to develop populations of cells that can be optimized to produce biopharmaceuticals. The work involves identifying genetic biomarkers that improve cell performance during production and rewiring the epigenetic landscape to have better control of gene expression. The goal is to reduce the cost and time burden associated with developing new biopharmaceutical-like antibodies for treating cancer or for producing vaccines to protect against certain illnesses. Following graduate school, Grissom hopes to become a research scientist in biopharmaceutical process design and development.

Wendy Huerta, psychological and brain sciences, UD

Wendy Huerta, a doctoral student in psychological and brain sciences, is working to understand when and why adults engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as self- and other-directed harm. Her research explores how situations that induce high levels of arousal (i.e., thrilling or anger-inducing events) can impair an individual’s ability to suppress impulsivity. Advised by Naomi Sadeh, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, Huerta is especially interested in how specific contexts, such as inducing positive or negative moods, influence neural markers of impulse control and whether these neural markers can be used to predict aggressive behavior. Following graduate school, she hopes to continue this work as a future faculty member and researcher.

Collin James Meese, civil engineering, UD

Collin Meese, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, is working to improve machine learning models for autonomous vehicles and intelligent transportation systems, such as ride-sharing services, under the advisement of Mark Nejad, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. The goal is to reduce costs and increase societal access to transportation. Meese recently led an interdisciplinary computer science and civil engineering research project where students and faculty developed a real-time learning system for predicting traffic flow. He will present the team’s results at the upcoming CCGrid 2022 conference in Italy. Following doctoral studies, Meese hopes to educate next generation transportation engineers in an academic research faculty position. Outside of research, he enjoys video games, hiking, cooking and disc golf.

Annie Porter, mechanical engineering, UD

Mechanical engineering doctoral student Annie Porter is studying the effect of joint inflammation on cartilage after traumatic injury, such as ACL rupture, under the advisement of X. Lucas Lu, associate professor of mechanical engineering. She is particularly interested in how to best treat the injury to prevent the future development of osteoarthritis. In the future, Porter wants to explore how microgravity in space affects the body’s ability to maintain healthy cartilage, as a proxy to better understand and treat osteoarthritis on Earth. She has complementary interests in stem education and science communication. Porter expressed gratitude to Jill Higginson and the College of Engineering Graduate Affairs office for supporting her to create a successful GRFP application.

Nicholas Samulewicz (Honors College), chemical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Nicholas Samulewicz, who graduated in May with a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering, conducted sustainable catalysis research for turning agricultural food waste into high-value chemicals for catalysts, natural food preservatives, cosmetics and lubricants, as part of the Vlachos group. He currently works at DuPont’s Experimental Station Laboratory purifying short DNA/RNA molecules for use as gene therapeutics. As president of UD’s ChemE Cube team, which focuses on building modular in-home water purification systems for regions without potable water, Samulewicz led the team to win the 2021 national championship at the AIChE conference. This fall at MIT, Samulewicz will study chemical engineering approaches to innovative renewable energy systems and hopes someday to launch a startup company.

Eric Sterin, biomedical engineering, UD

Eric Sterin, a doctoral student studying biomedical engineering, is exploring how the body’s immune system and other physiological responses can prevent nanocarrier systems from delivering medicines to specific areas of the body. Under the advisement of Emily Day, associate professor of biomedical engineering, Sterin is investigating the body’s biological response in order to devise strategies that reduce the immune system’s ability to eliminate the nanocarriers before they can deliver their therapeutic cargo. For example, gene editing techniques may help minimize the immune system’s ability to recognize the nanoparticles, allowing them to pass undetected. Following graduate school, Sterin hopes to continue pursuing both basic and translational research related to the body’s response to biomaterials at a nonprofit organization dedicated to medical advancement.

Sejal Suri, (Honors College), biomedical engineering, UD

While at UD, Sejal Suri, who graduated in May with a degree in biomedical engineering, explored nanoparticle systems for treating triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of breast cancer with limited treatment options. As part of the Emily Day lab, Suri worked to regulate relevant gene expression and suppress the tumor-causing behavior of TNBC cells, helping to design a nanoparticle platform to deliver specialized antibodies and therapeutics to terminate tumor progression. Suri was a member of the Honors Program, a Distinguished Scholar and a Eugene du Pont Memorial Scholar. As a doctoral student at the University of California, San Diego, this fall, she will explore novel therapeutic solutions to address unmet clinical needs in nanomedicine, drug delivery and regenerative medicine.

Sean Wirt (Honors College), chemical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Sean Wirt, who graduated in May with a degree in chemical engineering, has been conducting synthetic biology research with chemical and biomolecular engineer Aditya Kunjapur. Specifically, he has worked with graduate student mentors Neil Butler and Michaela Jones to uncover enzymes that synthesize non-standard amino acids, which can equip cells to produce new therapeutics and responsive materials. As a doctoral student in chemical engineering at MIT this fall, Wirt hopes to expand the toolkit of biotechnology development and bring about the biomanufacturing of commodity chemicals, specialty chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Ultimately, he hopes to develop innovative biotechnologies for sustainable chemical manufacturing in an R&D setting.

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

Alec Freeland Greco Agee, chemical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Adam Eugene Balvanz, inorganic materials chemistry, Northwestern University

Nicolette Anna Bugher, environmental engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Joshua Hoke Davis, computationally intensive research, University of Maryland

Maxwell Grozovsky, economics

Rachel Roday, marine biology, University of Texas at Austin

Emma Spillman, neurosciences, University of California, San Diego

An additional nine undergraduate or graduate students and alumni received honorable mentions:

Current institution is UD:

Amanda Delgado, STEM education and learning research

Delaney Doran, civil engineering

Richa Gautam, social psychology

Jason Geiger, environmental engineering

Ashlyn Kapinski, biomedical engineering

Amanda Sensi, chemical synthesis

Anna Stumps, cognitive neuroscience

UD alumni:

Erin Papke, marine biology, University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Kristen Nicole Tauber, economics

 Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase |

Feature StoryNSF Graduate Research Fellows