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April 13, 2017

Four current and former engineering students among recipients of prestigious NSF graduate research fellowships

Written By: Silke Schmidt

In March 2017, the National Science Foundation announced the latest recipients of its prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships, which include 18 UW-Madison students. Among these are two current chemical and biological engineering (CBE) undergraduate students and a biomedical engineering (BME) graduate student. A CBE alumna who is now pursuing her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) received an NSF fellowship as well.

Thejas Wesley (CBE) plans to characterize the properties of new materials that can function as electrocatalysts: They modify the rate of a chemical reaction designed to generate electrical power, without being consumed in the process. An example of such a reaction takes place in fuel cells, where hydrogen and oxygen are burned to generate electricity. Wesley’s work will help discover novel catalysts that may eventually contribute to power generation with renewable sources, such as wind and solar energy.

Daniel Vigil’s (CBE) research also concerns renewable energy. He plans to develop new computational models of the chemical reactions that take place during the production of biofuels. Complementing traditional chemical experiments, computational modeling has become a powerful tool for understanding how to extract the maximum amount of energy from the complex reactions between biological molecules.

Nicole Piscopo (BME), whose advisor is Assistant Professor Krishanu Saha, is studying a recently developed leukemia treatment called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. T-cells are specialized cells that orchestrate our immune system’s response to foreign or malignant cells. In CAR T-cell therapy, a leukemia patient’s T-cells are removed, genetically modified to better recognize and kill the cancer cells, and then injected back into the patient. The name “chimeric” means that the new genetic material may come from several sources. Piscopo’s research will help manufacture CAR T-cells as uniformly as possible, with the ultimate goal of minimizing harmful side effects while this novel therapy is being evaluated in clinical trials.

Kimberly Dinh, a 2015 CBE graduate who is a doctoral student at MIT, is studying the oxidation of methane, which makes up the majority of natural gas, to methanol. Natural gas has to be compressed in order to be transported. Since this is an expensive process, natural gas obtained as a byproduct in oil drilling is often burned at well sites. If, instead, the methane was converted to methanol, an energy-dense liquid that is easily transported with existing infrastructure, it could be utilized for a variety of downstream applications while reducing the environmental impact of oil drilling.