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Vanessa Barton NSF
April 14, 2023

Student Spotlight: Vanessa Barton NSF Fellowship Award

Written By: Caitlin Scott


Congratulations to Mechanical Engineering graduate student Vanessa Barton on receiving a 2023 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship! Barton is one of twelve College of Engineering students awarded this year.

Can you tell us about your research area(s) and expertise?

As a member of Assistant Professor Joseph Andrews’ Laboratory for Printed Electronics and Sensors (LPES), my research currently focuses on developing new flexible pressure sensors using an interdigitated co-planar capacitive sensing scheme in conjunction with an enhanced overlaid elastomeric composite. These sensors will be fully wearable and we aim for them to provide real-time detection of impact force, direction, and duration to help us more precisely understand traumatic brain injury (TBI) across many applications so that we can design and build better protection. This project is a part of the Physics-bAsed Neutralization of Threats to Human tissuEs and oRgans (PANTHER) team, an interdisciplinary research hub comprised of both academic labs and industry partners, focused on understanding, detecting, and preventing TBI. One of the aspects that I enjoy about this project is its interdisciplinary nature, as it combines mechanical, electrical, and material science engineering all for a biomedical application. I’m looking forward to doing more research on this topic and working to develop other sensors in the future.

What can you tell us about your PhD journey? What factors influenced your decision to come to Wisconsin?

I completed my bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and was eager to make a difference and conduct research, so I began working in research and development in the biopharmaceutical industry. I worked in industry for 4 years before returning for my PhD and while working I reinforced my enthusiasm for research, but also found that I was not satisfied with my career path. I chose to return to graduate school as an opportunity to seek an environment of continual learning and meaningful scientific and societal impact. I chose UW-Madison and the Andrews Laboratory for Printed Electronics and Sensors because I found the research area to be exciting, it provided the research opportunities that I was interested in, and I thought Prof. Joseph Andrews would be an excellent mentor. So far, I have found my PhD journey to be fulfilling and I am grateful for this opportunity to further my research career.

What is the trajectory of your research? What can you tell us about the GRFP?

In the future I would like to continue my career as a research and development engineer in industry or at a national laboratory, and I think the NSF GRFP award can provide an important step in that direction as it is one of the most prestigious fellowships for graduate research in the country. Not only can this award help me achieve my long-term goal for my career, but it also includes 3 years of funding, an allowance for the cost of education, and opportunities for professional development.

What insights do you have for other UW ME students interested in applying for NSF funding and/or considering graduate studies?

I think the general advice for those who are interested in applying for the NSF GRFP or are considering applying for graduate studies is to start early and have people review your applications. For the NSF GRFP there are seminars and resources on campus such as the writing center if you need help composing your application. You don’t have to go to every seminar or have the most people review your application, just find what works for you and have people who can provide good feedback review your essays. I found the online resources to be useful for me personally, as many fellows have posted their essays and that was the best way for me to understand what the panel wanted to see in my essays. As someone who returned to graduate studies after working my advice would be do not worry about if you are behind some timeline you have set for yourself and do not be afraid to make a big change if you are not happy with your current path. Now is always the best time to make a change even if it means you put yourself into a situation where you might be uncomfortable. If you try your best, you won’t regret it.

Any particular mentors that have helped you along your journey to the NSF fellowship?

I’d like to first acknowledge Prof. Joseph Andrews who turned out to be the excellent mentor I thought he would be. He is always willing to help and I’m grateful to be a member of his research group. I’d also like to acknowledge Prof. Pavana Prabhakar and her graduate student Hridyesh Tewani who helped me with my NSF GRFP application, and even more as collaborators in my research. Finally, I would like to acknowledge Ashok Dongre, my supervisor at my previous job who encouraged me to return to graduate school and helped me apply for the NSF GRFP. As always, I want to thank my friends and family for their constant support.