Four Receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Awards

NSF GRFP award winners A. Lili Castillo, Amy Huynh, Christopher Pantayatiwong Liu and Samer Saleh.

May 10, 2022 – Four Samueli School students have received Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awards from the National Science Foundation this year. The GRFP is a competitive program that recognizes and supports outstanding students who are pursuing research-based graduate degrees in science and engineering.

The engineering students are among 21 from UCI who received the honor along with three years of annual funding.

A. Lili Castillo

A. Lili Castillo, a mechanical engineering senior with a minor in biomedical engineering, is focused on STEM education and learning. Her research has revolved around engineering identity formation, specifically of latently diverse individuals. Castillo’s soon-to-be-published paper will explore how internships and co-ops influence engineering identity formation. She is advised by Allison Godwin from Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education.

In fall 2022, Castillo plans to attend graduate school in engineering education at Arizona State University. She will continue investigating engineering identity formation, specifically Latino/a/x and first-generation college students.

“The NSF GRFP is an opportunity for me to continue working on cutting-edge research on engineering identity formation to broaden student participation, improve the quality of education and create an environment for diversity, equity and inclusion in engineering,” said Castillo. “The NSF GRFP is also an investment in my future research efforts. It validates me as a researcher and increases my confidence in my own abilities to make a lasting change in my engineering community. The NSF GRFP has proved to me that I am capable of being a successful and innovative engineer despite the obstacles and social norms I’ve had to overcome as a result of my upbringing and identity.”

She added, “I am a proud Latina, first-generation college student raised by a single mother in a low-income household. This award is representative of all the work my mom has put into providing the opportunity for me to pursue higher education. Her support and my experiences in higher education are the reasons why I am passionate about engineering identity formation of Latino/a/x and first-generation college students, like myself. My success is not just my own – it is also the success of my mom, my family, my mentors and my supporters.”

Amy Huynh graduated from UCI in 2021 with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering. She is currently working as an operations systems engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover. She will attend MIT in the fall, where she intends to pursue master’s degrees in the Technology and Policy Program, and AeroAstro, with the goal of eventually earning her Ph.D. in AeroAstro. She plans to focus research on spacesuit materials and textiles with an interdisciplinary focus on space policy and sustainability in the MIT Multifunctional Metamaterials lab under Svetlana Boriskina.

Amy Huynh

While at UCI, Huynh was advised by Natascha Buswell, assistant professor of teaching of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and was involved with the UCI CanSat team under Professor Roger Rangel. In addition to her five internships at NASA, Huynh was a Brooke Owens Fellow at Made In Space, a Matthew Isakowitz Fellow at Astra, a Women in Aerospace Scholar and an AIAA Diversity Scholar. She also interned and taught for the nonprofit organization Dreams for Schools, founded by UCI alumni, to teach website development to middle school students from underrepresented communities.

“Receiving the NSF GRFP means freedom to fine-tune my research goals and interdisciplinary passions to create a broader impact in the world,” said Huynh. “As a first-generation, low-income student, I am very grateful for the academic and research opportunities that UCI has enabled me to pursue and am honored to receive this award. I hope to utilize this opportunity to uplift marginalized communities and students from similar backgrounds.”

She added, “Especially with May being AAPI month, I think it’s important for Asian Americans to share their unique stories and to provide visibility and representation in order to inspire the next generation of students. Being the first in my family to go to college and growing up with a brother with autism was a unique experience that continues to increase my resilience and shape my ambitions. I am very excited about the future and extremely honored to be a recipient of the NSF GRFP and to know that there are so many friends and colleagues rooting for me and helping me pursue my dreams.”

Christopher Pantayatiwong Liu

Christopher Pantayatiwong Liu, chemical engineering senior, is focused on fuel cells research, specifically, the wettability of gas diffusion layers (GDLs) for polymer electrolyte fuel cells (PEFCs), which are the fuel cells in vehicles like the Toyota Mirai. For the past three years under the advisement of Iryna Zenyuk, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, he has been evaluating different methods of estimating internal water contact angles inside GDLs using a combination of X-ray computed tomography, machine learning, computational software and topological theory.

“I do my best to keep my head down, focus on my work, and not seek praise or validation (experimental validation aside, of course),” said Liu. “But certain achievements – like having your paper cited or winning the NSF GRFP – let me know that at least some within the scientific community approve of my work.”

Liu plans to attend graduate school at UCI in fall 2022 and added, “My ’North Star’ throughout my undergraduate experience was to understand sustainability through the lens of policy, business and STEM, which I definitely adhered to. Joining Professor Zenyuk’s group was simply the result of curiosity – for most of my life the thought of pursuing a Ph.D. in STEM, let alone even having a career in STEM, was nonexistent. (I was admitted as a business student.) And so, receiving the NSF GRFP was a huge surprise.”

Samer Saleh

Samer Saleh, chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate student, is advised by Han Li, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. His research focuses on metabolic engineering and synthetic biology.

“This award allows me to follow in the footsteps of those who led the way before me,” said Saleh. “I'd like to thank my family, Mom, Aboud and Leen for their patience and support, and my mentors, Han, Will, Sarah and Derek for challenging me to innovate.”

Since 1952, NSF has funded over 60,000 Graduate Research Fellowships out of more than 500,000 applicants. More than 40 fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and more than 450 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences. These four Anteater engineers join a distinguished list of GRFP fellows, including former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

– Tonya Becerra