College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Ten students affiliated with Iowa State awarded NSF fellowships

Since 2004, the number of National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship winners with ties to Iowa State has been steadily increasing. This year marks the highest number yet, with ten students who are currently attending or previously graduated from Iowa State being honored.

Three of the winners will be completing their research at Iowa State: Karen Littlejohn, BSCprE’09 and graduate student in computer engineering; Nordica MacCarty, BSME’00; and Chelsea Sackett, senior in chemical engineering. The seven remaining winners are Amy Bergerud, BSMatE’09; Jason Boggess, senior in mechanical engineering; Diane Brown, senior in chemical engineering; Thomas Bruton, BSCE’05; Karl Peterson, senior in electrical engineering; Kaela Rasmussen, senior in aerospace engineering; and Pylin Sarobol, BSMatE’08.

Each year NSF awards these fellowships to recognize and support outstanding graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines. These students will receive three years of financial support including a $30,000 annual stipend, a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance, a $1,000 one-time international travel allowance, and TeraGrid Supercomputer access.

“The NSF Graduate Fellowships are highly prestigious, and it is very gratifying to see that our students have performed so well,” says Balaji Narasimhan, associate dean of research and graduate studies. “These fellowships are an important testament to the positive environment and encouragement we provide to our undergraduate students interested in research careers.”

Littlejohn will continue her education with the goal to become a professor in the future. She plans to first use the fellowship to finish her master’s research at Iowa State, which is a project that seeks to identify a new way to visualize networks to improve network security. “When I begin work on my PhD, I want to continue in the computer security realm,” Littlejohn says. “I’m very excited for this opportunity and appreciate all the people who spent time helping me with the application.”


MacCarty has been volunteering and working for the nonprofit Aprovecho Research Center in Oregon for the past six years, developing and sharing appropriate technology-based cooking stoves across the world. She will continue to focus on appropriate technology, alternative energy, and international development while she pursues her PhD remotely at Iowa State. “I am at the point in my career where I’d like to really take my intentions and experiences to the next level, helping to influence decision making and policy in the U.S. and abroad,” she says. “To do that, I need to broaden my horizons and understanding, and this NSF support can help me study what I find most interesting and useful to reach my goals. I’m looking forward to spending my first year investigating what is out there and discovering where I can be of best use.”

Sackett will begin working toward a PhD in chemical engineering at Iowa State in the fall. She was initially encouraged by Narasimhan to apply for the award and quickly learned how much flexibility the financial support would provide. “My graduate work will be a continuation of my undergraduate research on a joint project with Dr. Balaji Narasimhan and Dr. Jennifer O’Donnell,” she says. “We are studying the use of microemulsion polymerization to create small (sub-50 nm) polyanhydride nanoparticles containing drugs or vaccines that would be released from a hydrogel—essentially, an ‘on-demand’ pharmacy that would release the drug or vaccine to the body based on need.”

Bergerud will begin graduate school this fall at the University of California, Berkeley to pursue a PhD in material science. After learning she was interested in graduate school, Bergerud was encouraged by professors at Iowa State to apply for the NSF award. “I spent a lot of time preparing my application, and all that hard work paid off,” she says. “The fellowship will allow me to take my time in selecting an advisor and research project so I can find the best fit for me.” She plans to look for opportunities to explore her research interests, which include photovoltaics, magnetoelectronics, semiconductors, and photonic materials.

Boggess is planning to pursue a graduate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford in the fall. He looks forward to building on his undergraduate research experiences to discover new ways of approaching challenges. “Doing research is rewarding because it gives you an opportunity to help others,” Boggess says. “With NSF being funded by the government, you know that whatever you do with an NSF grant goes back into the public for everyone to use, so you can bring a lot of value to a number of people.” His current research interests are in 3-D visualization and advanced rendering techniques along with robotics, but he’s also open to new projects and interests.

Brown will begin work on her PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin in the fall. In her NSF application, she wrote, “I want to have a lasting impact improving sustainability of resources through directing research projects, making innovative discoveries, and sharing knowledge through publications, teaching, and collaborations.” With such high ambitions, she hopes to drive improvements within fundamental challenges related to food, water, energy, or human health. Honored to be among the Iowa State students receiving the award, Brown says she’s also grateful to her professors and advisors for supporting her throughout the application process and her college career.

Bruton is a first-year PhD student in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University. He appreciates the freedom the NSF fellowship provides, allowing him to work to develop a novel tool for assessing the effectiveness of different groundwater remediation strategies—a project that will involve both lab and field work at several contaminated Department of Defense sites in Arizona and California. “I’m truly honored to receive the NSF GRF,” Bruton says. “I know that it reflects well not only on me, but also on the institutions that have helped me get to where I am, namely Arizona State and Iowa State.”

Peterson plans to pursue a graduate degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology to prepare him for a career in research. “The NSF places a major emphasis on the broader impacts of the research they support,” he says. “It’s encouraging that someone felt I would be successful as a graduate researcher, and I’m even more excited to know that I was identified as someone who would provide a return on investment in terms of a benefit to society.” During graduate school, Peterson hopes to develop new integrated circuit technologies that can be used in sensory applications such as implanted biomedical devices and environmental monitoring systems.

Rasmussen recently accepted an offer of admission to Purdue University where she will begin a master’s program in aerospace engineering with an emphasis in astrodynamics and control. “The NSF fellowship was a great opportunity for me to be able to pursue research I am interested in while working on my graduate degree,” she says. “I’m really privileged and grateful to have received this award.” Rasmussen will defer the fellowship for two years because she was offered a two-year fellowship from Purdue. She will use the NSF award to complete her doctorate degree.

Sarobol is currently pursuing her PhD in materials engineering at Purdue University. Receiving the NSF award was very rewarding, giving her pride in her work and appreciation for those who have supported her. “Besides using the fellowship to fund myself through graduate school, I will use the award to attend conferences where I can present my research work on the growth mechanisms of tin whiskers,” she says. “Tin whiskers spontaneously grow in electronic systems and they pose a serious electrical reliability risk as they can form short circuits between adjacent leads or components.” Through her research, she’s planning to propose a physics-based model that relates in a systematic way the parameters used to create tin films to the resulting film characteristics and growth mechanisms of tin whiskers.

Iowa State also has six NSF GRF winners from previous years actively working on research: Catie Brewer in CBE/BRT, Shane Griffith in ECpE, Sasha Kemmet Oster in ECpE, Cory Kleinheksel in ECpE, Joseph Miller in ME, and Mike Steffan in ECpE.

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