Three MSE Graduate Students Named NSF Graduate Research Fellows

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced its 2017 cohort to the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and three Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering (BCOE) graduate students are among the awardees. Thomas Dugger, Melina Fuentes-Garcia and Sarah Allec, all Ph.D. students in the Materials Science and Engineering program, were recognized by NSF as part of the program that “supports outstanding graduate students with a fellowship who they anticipate can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.”

Dugger, who is in his second year of study under Professor David Kisailus, was selected for his research relating to spider silk, nature’s strongest protein fiber. His work focuses on investigating the factors that control the assembly of crystalline domains within the silk proteins. By understanding how spiders make silk, he can apply the method to polymer manufacturing and design polymer fibers, which can then be used to make strong fiber-reinforced composites for applications such as body armor, sports equipment, and aircraft or automobile frames.

Second year Ph.D. student Melina Fuentes-Garcia, working with Professor Allen Mills, earned a fellowship for her research related to aspects of atomic, molecular, optical, and condensed matter physics. Positronium is a hydrogen-like atom composed of an electron and its antiparticle, the positron. Fuentes-Garcia’s studies include making a precise measurement of the positronium 1S-2S energy interval to shed light on the proton radius puzzle – the name given to the apparent disparity in the size of the proton measured using 1S-2S spectroscopy of hydrogen and muonic hydrogen. These experiments will provide a precision test of bound-state quantum electrodynamics theory, fundamental to our understanding of modern physics.

Sarah Allec, a second-year graduate student working with Dr. Bryan Wong, works on quantum dynamics calculations on the electronic properties of massive light-harvesting systems. She applied large-scale quantum calculations to predict the properties of phosphorene nanotubes and porphyrin nanotubes. She is currently working to improve computational models for the study of larger, more complex systems and the development of a multiscale computational model for lightweight multifunctional materials to accelerate the guided synthesis and implementation of carbon nanotubes and graphene for such materials via high-throughput screening and machine learning techniques.

This year, a total of 2,000 NSF GRFP awardees were chosen from more than 13,000 applicants nationwide. Fourteen of the successful candidates were from UC Riverside, including Dugger, Fuentes-Garcia, and Allec. Recipients benefit from a three-year annual stipend along with a cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

The NSF GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

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