Three Receive Schlumberger Faculty for the Future Awards

May 6, 2015 -  Three engineering graduate students have received prestigious fellowships from the Schlumberger Foundation, a nonprofit entity that supports STEM education.

Samueli School students Arunima Bhattacharjee, Kliah Soto Leytan and Neha Garg were named by the foundation as its 2015-16 Faculty for the Future, an award which supports outstanding women from developing countries with up to $50,000 a year in their pursuit of doctoral or postgraduate STEM studies. Winners are chosen based on leadership qualities, academic performance, outstanding references, research relevance and engagement toward science and education as a development tool in their home countries.

Since the program’s 2004 launch, 560 women from emerging countries, including this year’s 155 awardees, have received Faculty for the Future fellowships to pursue advanced graduate studies at top universities abroad. After completing their studies, the Fellows return to their home countries, contributing to economic, social and technological advancement.

Bhattacharjee (image gallery, on left), a materials science doctoral student whose adviser is Allon Hochbaum, was born in India, where she received her undergraduate degree in biotechnology and her master’s degree in nanotechnology. She researches multispecies bacterial biofilms, studying the interactions between different types of infectious bacteria. Understanding these interactions, she says, can lead to development of therapies and treatment strategies for the infectious diseases caused by those bacteria.

Hochbaum, chemical engineering and materials science assistant professor, calls Bhattacharjee an invaluable member of the multidisciplinary research effort. “Her work shows great promise for future technological innovation, and she's a natural leader, managing a number of projects and researchers in exciting areas of science, engineering and biology."

Soto Leytan (image gallery, center), also a materials science and engineering graduate student, whose adviser is Dan Mumm, was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, and moved at age 16 with her family to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. She graduated cum laude from Occidental College in Los Angeles in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics. At UCI, her research focuses on understanding the degradation of turbine materials during combustion. Higher efficiencies, which result in higher operating temperatures, along with air pollution that can introduce contaminants into the turbines, can accelerate the degradation of these materials. Leytan seeks to fully understand these processes in order to prevent the degradation mechanisms.

"Kliah Soto Leytan is a talented researcher, dedicated mentor, and exceptional role model, and is very deserving of this prestigious award,” says Mumm, chemical engineering and materials science associate professor. “She is among the most gifted Ph.D. students I've worked with and I look forward to seeing her career progress." 

Garg (image gallery, on right), a biomedical engineering student, works on the separation and enrichment of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) using acoustics in a microfluidic device, called a lateral cavity acoustic transducer. Because the CTCs are much larger than the other blood cells, they can be separated by the device which, she says, can also be used for pumping, DNA shearing, cell sorting and  separating impurities from water.  Garg, who has a strong interest in global health issues, hopes to use the technology to advance point-of care diagnostics platforms for developing countries.

Her adviser, biomedical engineering professor and department chair Abe Lee, calls her, “one of the most passionate graduate students I have ever had, full of energy and enthusiasm about research and about learning.”  

Born in western India, Garg earned an integrated bachelor’s and master’s degree in biotechnology and biochemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology.  “Since this award is only for females from developing countries who are engaged in scientific research, winning this meant a lot to me and my family,” she says. “There are still some families in India who believe that girls do not have potential to do research, so winning this award can be an example and a starting point for a change [in the field of research].”

Soto Leytan and Bhattacharjee also expressed gratitude at receiving this prestigious recognition. Says Soto Leytan: “From a personal point of view, it really validates the sacrifices made by my family and myself. Being recognized in this way is just a big blessing and it fuels my determination and passion. From an academic point of view, this is a great honor that opens so many doors around the globe.”

For Bhattacharjee, the program’s goals – to create an international community of women leaders who support scientific development and act as agents of change in their home countries – resonate. “One of the main areas the Schlumberger Foundation is focused on is community building and we are encouraged to interact with many other researchers who have won this award and are doing similar research,” she says. “Also, I am really inspired to work toward encouraging women to undertake STEM careers.”

-- Anna Lynn Spitzer