Mechanical engineering grad student wins 2013 Zaffarano Prize

Joseph Miller, a recent Ph.D. graduate in mechanical engineering, was awarded the 2013 Zaffarano Prize, which recognizes superior performance in publishable research by a graduate student.

A check for $1,500 and a plaque was presented to Miller by the Iowa State University chapter of Sigma Xi, an international honor society for research scientists and engineers, at its banquet in April.

millerMiller says the Zaffarano Prize was a happy surprise, considering his initial dislike of writing when he was an undergraduate.

“I chose a discipline somewhat based on ‘where can I be and not have to do a lot of writing,’ which turned out to be mistaken thinking,” said Miller. “Writing is half of what you do as an engineer, and if you’re not able to communicate your ideas to the scientific community as well as a broader general audience, you’re not going to go anywhere. So I had to get better.”

Miller said as a first-year graduate student he found writing academic papers “incredibly intimidating,” but he ended his graduate studies having published 16 papers, eight as a lead author.

Miller is also the first graduate student in mechanical engineering to be honored with the Zaffarano Prize in its 24-year history. He credits the interdisciplinary approach of his major professor, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Terry Meyer, for that first-time nod.

Miller’s research at Iowa State focused on developing a high-energy, high-repetition-rate pulsed laser and ultrafast nonlinear spectroscopy techniques for optical sensing of turbulent combustion. These tools allow scientists to track key components and properties of combustion, in order to acquire a more thorough understanding of combustion reactions. Being able to accurately and precisely describe combustion processes has potential applications to industrial and utility power generation, residential heating, the aerospace industry, and the automotive industry.

Miller received his bachelor’s degree at Cedarville University in Ohio with assistance from an undergraduate scholarship from the Department of Defense. He followed graduation with a year as a civilian researcher at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB, also in Ohio.

“There, I got to know one of the senior researchers, who happened to be taking a faculty position at Iowa State University in 2006,” said Miller of Meyer.

Miller began his Ph.D. program program at Iowa State in 2007 in Meyer’s research group, again under a Department of Defense fellowship. He is currently employed as a post-doctoral associate with the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“Because Terry looks outside the boundaries of the traditional definition of mechanical engineering, I was able to meet with collaborators all over the U.S. and the world,” Miller added. “My time at Iowa State was very rewarding and productive, and I really credit that mentor-student relationship for this achievement.”

Materials science P.h.D. grad wins honorable mention

Additionally, former graduate student Cheng Ma received an honorable mention from the Zaffarano Prize committee. He received his Ph.D. with a major in materials science and engineering and a minor in chemistry in August 2012. Under the supervision of Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Xiaoli Tan, his research focused on the microstructural mechanism of high-performance lead-free piezoelectric materials. During his graduate studies he published 15 papers, nine of them as lead author.

Cheng is currently a postdoctoral research associate at Oak Ridge National Lab, conducting research in Li-ion batteries.