Three Engineering Students Win Public Impact Fellowships

Norman (left), De Bortoli and Sameni are among this year's Public Impact Fellows, recognized for the potential of their research to improve lives.April 17, 2017 - Mechanical and aerospace engineering graduate student Sumner Norman is one of four UC Irvine students named 2017 Public Impact Distinguished Fellows by the UCI Department of Graduate Studies. The Public Impact Distinguished Fellowship awards support doctoral students whose current research has the potential to substantially affect the public sphere and significantly improve or enrich lives locally, nationally or globally.

Norman, who will receive a $12,000 stipend, earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Utah in 2012, graduating with honors and receiving the Undergraduate Research Scholarship Designation award.  A recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award, he is pursuing a doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and expects to complete his degree and defend his thesis this summer. His research revolves around developing a brain-computer interface (BCI) for neurorehabilitation robotics, primarily for therapy in stroke and spinal cord injury patients. He currently is researching brain states tied directly to motor engagement in stroke patients and is developing a low-cost BCI for in-home therapy.

In addition to being a recipient of the Public Impact Fellowship, Norman, whose graduate adviser is David Reinkensmeyer, is a Sue & Nick Alexopoulos/Beckman Coulter Scholar, an ARCS Fellow and a Data Science Initiative Summer Fellow. He also served on the editorial board for the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation, was a writer and managing editor for NPR’s “The Loh Down on Science,” and promoted his research at the Congressional Caucuses on Robotics and Innovation in Washington, D.C. and at the Graduate Research Advocacy Day in Sacramento, Calif.

“Stroke is the number one cause of disability in the world, and costs the U.S. health care system over $70 billion per year,” Norman says. “In addition to the great honor that it is to receive the Public Impact Fellowship, it gives me the opportunity to represent the great science that can support and improve the lives of Americans living with disability after a stroke. This award not only supports my doctoral research toward solving disability after stroke, but gives a voice to the families of millions of stroke survivors who can’t wait for rehabilitation technology to arrive in the homes of their loved ones.”

Marta De Bortoli, a doctoral student in civil & environmental engineering, and Sara Sameni, a biomedical engineering doctoral student, were among 10 additional UCI students selected to receive honorable mention Public Impact Fellowships, which include $1,000 stipends.

De Bortoli, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering at the University of Padova in Italy, is a member of the Performance-Based Earthquake Engineering Lab in the Department of Civil Engineering. She is working on simplifying current probabilistic approaches for earthquake design and is developing performance equations to predict how structures will behave in earthquakes. She expects to receive her Ph.D. this year. Her adviser is Farzin Zareian, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Sameni, who uses advanced optical technology to develop biomarkers for early detection of brain diseases, earned biomedical engineering bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UCI. She is an NSF BEST IGERT Fellow working in the lab of her adviser, Michelle Digman, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and in the Laboratory of Fluorescence Dynamics, and she expects to graduate this year with her Ph.D. She holds various leadership positions at UCI and is interested in empowering women and minorities in STEM fields.  

-- Anna Lynn Spitzer

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