By Edwin L. Aguirre
Mechanical engineering senior Deborah Fowler and chemical engineering senior Erin Shaughnessey have each won a 2018 Graduate Research Fellowship Program award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Chemistry graduate student Abigail Giarrosso was awarded an Honorable Mention.
The NSF program supports graduate study that leads to a research-based master’s degree or doctorate in a STEM field. Past fellows have included more than 40 Nobel Prize winners (including former U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu, who received an honorary degree from UML in 2016) as well as Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.
Fowler and Shaughnessey were selected by the NSF for their research proposals on structural dynamics and in vitro modeling of multiple sclerosis (MS), respectively. They will each receive a $34,000 stipend, which is renewable over three years, and a $12,000 tuition award that is paid directly to their chosen institution.
“The fellowships are quite prestigious, with only 2,000 awardees selected from more than 12,000 applicants nationwide,” notes Dean Joseph Hartman of the Francis College of Engineering.
Giarrosso was recognized for her work to replace acetone, which is slightly neurotoxic, as gel nail polish remover and replace it with a safer alternative. She conducts her graduate research at UMass Lowell and at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute and the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.
Modeling Diseases of the Central Nervous System in the Lab
The NSF cited Shaughnessey for her proposal to develop a sensor-laden biomedical device that uses microfluidics technology to model the human blood-brain barrier (BBB) in vitro. The BBB is a semipermeable membrane that helps protect the brain from harmful foreign cells and substances. Shaughnessey’s goal is to mimic the flow of tiny amounts of fluids through a BBB-like layer, using tiny channels measuring thousandths of a millimeter in size.
According to Shaughnessey, the device could help us better understand the progression of central nervous system diseases, including MS, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
“This model would also be useful in studying how environmental exposures like pesticides and air pollution can influence the development of neurodegenerative diseases,” she explains. “For example, identifying and eliminating these environmental triggers may prove to be an effective means of reducing the prevalence of MS among the adult population.”
Shaughnessey notes that animal models and traditional static cell cultures often fail to accurately predict human responses to therapeutic drugs. The technology she hopes to develop would be a vital tool for performing pre-clinical drug screening more effectively. This could lead to higher success rates during clinical trials and better patient outcomes, as well as reducing the time it takes to move life-saving medicines to the market.
Innovative Research in Structural Dynamics
Fowler’s proposed research focuses on nonlinear systems, in which the change of the output in structural models is not proportional to the change of the input. Her goal is to extend the mathematical reduction and expansion techniques currently used in industry to geometrically nonlinear systems and be able to expand them into the systems’ full field, even with limited measured data.
Fowler’s method, which would streamline analysis of nonlinear systems and provide tools to better integrate experimental data into models using readily available equipment, could potentially benefit a range of engineering applications and industries, including renewable energy, structural health monitoring, aerospace and defense research.
“Nonlinear systems are very difficult and expensive to predict and to model, so my method would increase the speed and efficiency of computational analysis and predict the systems’ full-field response more accurately,” says Fowler.
A Great Opportunity
“The NSF fellowship provides a great opportunity for graduate studies,” says Fowler of Lowell. “UMass Lowell has given me a firm theoretical and practical foundation in the mechanical engineering field.”
An Honors College scholar, she plans to work on her doctorate at UMass Lowell, under the tutelage of Prof. Peter Avitabile in the university’s Structural Dynamics and Acoustic Systems Laboratory (SDASL). During a recent internship at Sandia National Laboratories, Fowler conducted research to study the interaction between structural vibrations and acoustics.
In the fall of 2017, she received a $1,000 research fellowship award from the Honors College to start working on the project in her NSF proposal. “This allowed me to get a head start on my Ph.D. research while I’m an undergraduate,” says Fowler.
Her goal is to pursue a career in structural dynamics research; she also wants to stay active in outreach, as she has been very much involved with the UML chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
“This fellowship allows me the freedom to pursue ambitious K-12 outreach goals with local and national community partners so that I can encourage students from all backgrounds to consider and pursue STEM careers,” she says.
Fowler transferred to UMass Lowell from Quinsigamond Community College in her sophomore year. In high school she attended Sudbury Valley School, an alternative school emphasizing freedom, responsibility, independence and self-directed learning.
“The skills and self-knowledge I gained there led to my success as a student at UMass Lowell and to my successful NSF application,” she says.
More Freedom to Explore
Like Fowler, Shaughnessey was a transfer student, attending UMass Amherst for two years before transferring to UMass Lowell in the fall of 2015.
Shaughnessey completed summer internships at MKS Instruments in Methuen and Pfizer in Andover. She also did two co-ops – at Sanofi Genzyme in Westborough and the Draper Lab in Cambridge.
“Being a part of the UMass Lowell co-op program helped me immensely,” says Shaughnessey. “Had I not gained industry experience during college, I would not have been aware of the opportunities available to doctoral graduates besides traditional academic jobs. Thanks to the flexibility provided by the co-op program and the Chemical Engineering Department, I was able to spend two eight-month periods in the biotechnology/biopharmaceutical industry by working at Sanofi in 2016 and Draper in 2017.”
Those experiences, particularly the mentors she met along the way, inspired her to go into graduate research. She plans to pursue her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Tufts University this fall.
“I am thrilled and honored to win the NSF fellowship. It will give me more freedom to explore my research interests in grad school,” says Shaughnessey, who lives in Westford.
Class of 2016
Shaughnessey and Fowler are the latest in a growing list of NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program awardees from UMass Lowell. In 2016, three students – Alexandra Sneider (chemical engineering), William Boag (computer science) and Tina Dardeno (mechanical engineering) – received the fellowships for their proposed studies.
Sneider’s undergraduate research, under Asst. Prof. Prakash Rai, was using nanotechnology to treat triple negative breast cancer. She is using her fellowship as a Ph.D. candidate in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Boag’s study, under Asst. Prof. Anna Rumshisky, was on natural language processing and machine learning. He was accepted into the Ph.D. program in computer science at MIT. Dardeno’s research, under Prof. Avitabile, was to design a non-invasive strain-monitoring system for patients undergoing total hip-replacement surgery. She is pursuing her Ph.D. at SDASL at UMass Lowell.