Six Engineering Graduate Students Named NSF Fellows

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program awardees from the Samueli School include, from left, top, Francis Aguas, Katherine Brenner and Nikole Chetty; bottom, Brian Devine, Ethan Leong and Eric Yoshida.

May 25, 2023 - Six Samueli School students have received and accepted National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awards this year. They are among 33 recipients from UCI.

The NSF GRFP recognizes graduate students in STEM and STEM education fields who demonstrate potential for significant research achievements in science and engineering. The five-year fellowship offers up to three years of financial support, covering $12,000 in tuition and fees and providing a $37,000 annual stipend. Applications are evaluated by scientists and engineers who are professional graduate education experts.

Francis Aguas earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from UCI last year and continues as a doctoral student focusing on retinal imaging technology. He explored a variety of subjects in biomedical engineering by participating in undergraduate research projects, but he settled on ophthalmology, inspired to make a difference in the field by his grandmother who suffered from glaucoma and macular degeneration.

Under the advisement of Dr. Andrew Browne, an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology, Aguas researches using two-photon excitation for imaging the retina. It allows for precise and deeper tissue penetration that can potentially detect retinal diseases earlier before permanent structural damage occurs.

“Vision is a crucial yet often overlooked part of our daily lives,” said Aguas. “I aspire to contribute to advancing the diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases, and I'm extremely honored to receive the prestigious NSF fellowship.”

Katherine Brenner, a civil and environmental engineering doctoral student, focuses on reclaimed water quality testing. Raised in San Diego, she became fascinated with bacteria and microorganisms at an early age, receiving her first microscope for her fifth birthday and devising ways to test tap water at her elementary school. Brenner completed her undergraduate work at UCLA where she created a dashboard for the UCLA COVID-19 wastewater project to inform policy decisions for school-mandated testing.

At UCI, she is under the advisement of Sunny Jiang, a civil and environmental engineering professor, and researches cutting-edge remediation methods for reclaimed water. Particularly, she is researching how coliphages, viruses that infect bacteria, can be used as indicators of water contamination.

“It is both shocking and exciting how little we know about microorganisms and their potential to aid in environmental conservation,” said Brenner. “I aim to fill some of these gaps with my research and improve water quality standards for reused water.”

Determined to empower the next generation of female engineers, she added, “I am extremely grateful to the NSF, my current research adviser Sunny Jiang and past research adviser Shaily Mahendra for their guidance. I wouldn't be here without the amazing female mentors in my life including my mother who modeled hard work and dedication.”

Nikole Chetty graduated from UCI in 2020 with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical and biomedical engineering and is a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. At UCI, Chetty researched quantitative measures of brain recovery after cardiac arrest for two years under Beth Lopour, an associate professor of biomedical engineering. She also worked to develop an SSVEP-based brain computer interface (BCI), artificial intelligence that can detect brain signal patterns and responses to visual stimuli, to introduce high school students to biomedical engineering.

At Carnegie Mellon, she evaluates methods for improving a BCI called the Stentrode that is under clinical trial in the United States for people with severe paralysis. Specifically, the Stentrode enables patients to operate a computer by interpreting their brain signals. Chetty is focused on improving the Stentrode’s speed and accuracy using a haptic feedback interface.

“To other scholars out there – don’t give up on fellowship applications,” said Chetty, who applied for the NSF GRFP two years ago and was awarded an honorable mention. “I am incredibly grateful for the mentorship and guidance I received and opportunities I was afforded while studying engineering at UCI.”

Brian Devine is a fourth-year aerospace engineering major who will continue at UCI as a doctoral student this fall. He has been on the UCI Rocket Project liquids team for two years, an engineering group designing the school’s first bi-propellant liquid rocket. As the team’s propulsion lead, he enjoys conducting experiments with groupmates and diving into research and development.

Devine is an undergraduate researcher under the advisement of Xian Shi, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. His research involves analyzing and predicting detonation phenomena, high-speed flames following supersonic shockwaves. Since detonation technology is more efficient than regular combustion processes, a better understanding of detonation phenomena could assist researchers in developing engines for low-emission and affordable transportation systems.

“Obtaining a Ph.D. will let me work on my personal goal of designing high-speed and space-orientated propulsion systems of the future,” said Devine, who received offers from other institutions but chose to continue at UCI in Shi’s lab, the X-Energy Laboratory. “I’m proud that I've come this far and glad that I can continue learning.”

Ethan Leong graduated from UCI in 2022 with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering and is a second-year doctoral student at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU Boulder). At UCI, he researched the feasibility of magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) propulsion, a propulsion system commonly used in spaceships, for microrobots under Camilo Velez Cuervo, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. He also participated in design projects such as UCI Solar Airplane, Anteater Electric Racing and HyperXite.

At CU Boulder, Leong’s research focuses on using MHD interactions for boundary layer flow control to reduce heating and energy loss on vehicles that travel at hypersonic speed, or more than five times the speed of sound. He hopes to use his background and interests to improve the capability for hypersonic flight, particularly with MHD, for applications such as planetary re-entry after completing his doctorate.

“Receiving this fellowship motivates me to keep learning about aerospace topics and related fields such as plasma physics so that I can make an impact in the aerospace engineering field,” said Leong. “I want to mentor undergraduate students with the research that I am passionate about and assist them in their future endeavors.”

Eric Yoshida is a first-year doctoral student in materials science and engineering and earned a bachelor’s in chemistry and master’s in materials science at UC Santa Barbara. As an undergraduate and master’s student, he worked with batteries and became interested in researching solid-state batteries as a clean energy technology. Impressed with UCI’s microscopy facilities, he chose to pursue his doctorate under Kai He, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering.

At the He Lab, Yoshida is focused on developing batteries that use a solid-state electrolyte that has greater energy storage potential than the liquid-state electrolyte currently used. He analyzes the space-charge layer in solid electrolytes, the layer formed when two materials cannot achieve neutrality, using Transmission Electron Microscopes (TEMs) at the UC Irvine Materials Research Institute. He also researches how synthesizing solid electrolyte materials can be more energy efficient to make industrial production environmentally sustainable.

“Receiving the GRFP gave me validation that my research can provide valuable contributions to the scientific community,” said Yoshida, who aspires to become an assistant professor. “The award offers me quite a bit of freedom to test some of my more outside-of-the-box ideas, which should make for an exciting time during my Ph.D.”

– Lilith Christopher