By Mark Dwortzan
College of Engineering PhD students Patrick Gregg (ECE), Daniel Reynolds (BME) and Benjamin Weinberg (BME) have received National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships. The prestigious award provides a $30,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for up to three years to outstanding full-time U.S. graduate students deemed likely to contribute significantly to the advancement of science and engineering in the U.S.
The nation’s oldest fellowship program directly supporting graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is highly competitive: this year only 2,000 fellowships were awarded out of more than 13,000 applicants. Since the GRFP’s inception 60 years ago, it has funded several graduate students who went on to become Nobel Prize winners and industry and government leaders.
“The success of our graduate students in the NSF Fellowship competition is further evidence of the quality of our doctoral programs and the recognition our research efforts are receiving,” said Professor M. Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME, MSE), associate dean for Research and Graduate Programs. “I congratulate our students for capturing these prestigious and highly competitive grants.”
Gregg, a second-year graduate student, is working with Associate Professor Siddharth Ramachandran (ECE, MSE) on a new method to modify current optical communications systems to provide increased bandwidth, so more information can be transmitted over the same volume of optical fiber.
“One of the current problems with optical communications systems today is the so-called ‘capacity crunch,’ which is dictated by the projected increasing demand for bandwidth and the limitations of current technology,” said Gregg, who with Ramachandran is advancing a potential solution in which light beams that twist forward like a spiral are simultaneously transmitted through an optical fiber.
Reynolds, a first-year graduate student focused on biomaterials research, is considering a project to grow cancer cells on biomaterial scaffolds as a way to simulate the tumor environment in the laboratory setting.
“These engineered tumor constructs provide an advantageous platform on which to investigate basic cancer biology as well as to test anticancer drug efficacy,” explained Reynolds, who is also interested in using biomaterials to improve the delivery of such drugs to tumor cells.
Weinberg, a first-year graduate student, aims to answer major scientific questions and create new therapeutic strategies through genetic reprogramming of mammalian organisms using synthetic biology tools.
“With the fellowship, I plan to engineer novel synthetic genetic circuits in mammalian brains for precise optical control of neural activity,” he said. “This method can be utilized to systematically analyze the causal role of each cell type in neural circuit computation, cognition and pathology, and develop gene therapy-based treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders.”