Four Graduate Students Win Public Impact Fellowships

Dec. 3, 2018 - Each year, UC Irvine’s Department of Graduate Studies awards four Public Impact Distinguished Fellowships campuswide to graduate students whose research is deemed to have a substantial impact on local, national or global communities. This year, Samueli School doctoral students won three of those awards, which come with a $12,000 stipend. In addition, a biomedical engineering graduate student was named one of 10 Public Impact Fellows and will receive a $1,000 stipend.

The Samueli School’s 2018-19 Public Impact Distinguished Fellows are: William Thrift and Rachel Rosenzweig, materials science and engineering; and Melissa Thone, chemical and biomolecular engineering. Hamsa Gowda was named a Public Impact Fellow.

Thrift, who earned his bachelor’s degree in nanoengineering from UC San Diego, conducts research at the intersection of nanotechnology, biosensing, optics and machine learning, focusing on the development and implementation of optical biosensors for medical diagnostics. He uses nanomanufacturing and machine learning to develop small-molecule sensors that can replicate the sense of smell and simulate the brain’s role in smell, with the goal detecting and monitoring antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “My research has demonstrated that we can detect antibiotic-resistant bacteria early enough to destroy them with conventional therapy, smell the direction that small molecules emerge from, and identify whether or not an infection is resistant to antibiotics.”

Thrift, whose adviser is Regina Ragan, professor of materials science and engineering, also is a writer for KPCC’s “The Loh Down on Science,” where he writes about advances in sensors, optics and artificial intelligence. He said he was thrilled to win the award, adding, “The funding provided by this award will allow me to take more risks in my research and tackle bigger problems.”

Rosenzweig earned her bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering at the University of Washington. Under the direction of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor Albert Yee, she is seeking a solution to the overuse of antimicrobial chemicals. She investigates natural antibacterial nanotopography found on insect wings, like those of dragonflies, butterflies and cicadas, and looks for ways to use this nanotopography’s biophysical mechanisms on medical device materials. “Such insect wings possess arrays of nanoscale spikes 1,000 times thinner than human hair and small enough to disrupt the growth and motility of both infectious bacteria and fungi,” says Rosenzweig. “These bio-inspired physical surfaces are ideal candidates for antimicrobial methods without the use of chemicals that lead to antimicrobial resistance.”

Rosenzweig said she was “beyond grateful” to win this fellowship. “Not only to support my research but to spread both academic and government awareness of bio-inspired solutions to this huge health care problem” of antimicrobial resistance, which the World Health Organization calls a dominant threat to global health.

Thone, a fourth-year doctoral student who earned her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in chemical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, also is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and an ARCS Scholar. She researches novel production methods of cellular particles called extracellular vesicles (EVs) for personalized therapeutics, such as cancer vaccines. “Development of a controllable and effective cancer vaccine would provide a proactive way to take on cancer, leading to reduced cancer rates and better quality of life for patients globally,” said Thone, whose graduate adviser is Young Jik Kwon, pharmaceutical sciences professor. “I was honored to be selected as a Public Impact Fellow,” Thone added. “This award will help me to share my work with others and advance the project, making translation to the real world an even closer reality.”

Gowda, who is co-advised by Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Professor Marc Madou and Civil & Environmental Engineering Professor Sunny Jiang, is working to leverage point-of-care technology from the clinical sphere to the environmental sphere to provide automated and portable water quality analysis. Using a centrifugal microfluidic platform, she is working on a system that will be capable of detecting bacterial concentration in water sources on-site, much faster and less expensively than traditional analyses. Gowda earned her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is the outreach vice president for UCI’s Graduate Association for Biomedical Engineering Students and recently won an Invention Transfer Group Fellowship from UCI Applied Innovation, which will help her gain experience in technology transfer and commercialization. “I feel [this fellowship] can help increase awareness about water contamination and the need to test water sources quickly and often to protect communities locally and abroad,” Gowda said.

- Anna Lynn Spitzer

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