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UC Merced grad students, alums receive NSF Research Fellowships

Two UC Merced Ph.D. students, a recent undergraduate and an alumna have each been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP).

The fellowship provides multiyear support to predoctoral students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The fellowship is highly competitive, with annual acceptance rates of about 14 percent from among more than 12,000 applicants.

Maia Powell, from Colorado Springs, Colo., is beginning her third year in the Applied Mathematics Graduate Group. She joined Professor Arnold Kim’s lab in 2018 to pursue research in latent processes leading to the emergence of hate speech using data science, natural language processing and machine learning.

This is the third consecutive year an Applied Mathematics graduate student received this prestigious award — Melissa Spence and Shayna Bennett were also recipients.

“I was both honored and humbled to receive the GRFP,” Powell said. “This fellowship not only allows me to focus on my research for the next three years of my graduate degree, but it also gives me confidence in my potential as a scientist.”

The summer before she began her graduate program, Powell participated in the Graduate Division’s Competitive Edge Summer Bridge program, which helped her develop the preliminary drafts for her fellowship statements.

“The Competitive Edge Summer Bridge Program provided me with invaluable information about what reviewers look for in applications,” she said. “During this time, I also received helpful, detailed feedback and advice from the mentors and previous awardees that were crucial to the success of my applications.”

Wai Hnin Oo, a first-year Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. student in Professor Mehmet Baykara’s lab, is working on discovering the physical limits of “superlubricity,” a phenomenon where friction vanishes under special conditions between two contacting surfaces.

“This phenomenon has immense potential for minimizing useful energy loss in mechanical systems, and I am eager to contribute to the eventual realization of this phenomenon on an industrial scale for potentially revolutionary applications,” she said.

“This fellowship gives me the freedom to focus on my research work and to initiate STEM outreach projects. I’m incredibly thankful for receiving this opportunity.”

Recent graduate John Misiaszek earned a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering.

Misiaszek, who grew up in Kingman, Arizona, and attended high school in Carlsbad, Calif., performed machine building research in Professor Jessica Wang’s lab. He has designed and fabricated several of the custom research instruments and tools researchers use in the lab.

Misiaszek will join Northwestern University as a Ph.D. student in Materials Science and Engineering this fall.

“Receiving the NSF GRFP grants me the financial security to go to Northwestern and work in a rigorous environment that will shape me into the best scientist I can be,” Misiaszek said.

Merced native Brenda Yu graduated from UC Merced in 2019 with bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and psychology.

During her time at UC Merced, she worked under Professor Mark Sistrom to investigate the antibacterial properties of gecko skin as an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Center CAMP Scholar. Then, as an NSF-CREST Center for Cellular and Biomedical Machines scholar, she conducted research with Professor Michael Colvin using molecular dynamics to simulate novel configurations for anticancer drugs, and with Professor Sayantani Ghosh to investigate the physical properties of gold nanoclusters and their potential application toward novel imaging techniques.

Yu is a Ph.D. student in Biophysics at Stanford University with Professor Raag Airan’s lab. She is working to leverage focused ultrasound and ultrasound-sensitive nanoparticles to develop non-invasive therapies for neurological disorders.

“I am a first-generation, Taiwanese, female scientist from a low-income background — identities that are within the minority in STEM,” she said. “While the NSF GRFP is primarily a funding source and a career resource, it is also a fellowship that seeks to increase the diversity of science.

“I hope to leverage my fellowship status to advocate for programs that support scholars from marginalized backgrounds and share my story to inspire others to keep working toward their career dreams.”

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