Two Kettering University alumni recently received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship to support STEM research for the next three years.
Lixi Liu ‘15 and Nate Dwarshuis ‘15 both received awards through the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions.
“The NSF graduate fellowship is a very prestigious award for first year graduate students. It’s only awarded to a small percentage of applicants. It's quite an impressive accomplishment,” said Dr. Susan Farhat, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering at Kettering.
For the 2016 awards, NSF received close to 17,000 applications and made only 2,000 award offers, according to the NSF GRFP website.
Both Liu and Dwarshuis were surprised and humbled to be chosen for the fellowship. The fellowship will allow them to have more freedom in their research.
Dwarshuis, who studied Chemical Engineering at Kettering, is now studying Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech.
His research at Georgia Tech aims to manufacture T cells for immunotherapy.
“T cell immunotherapies have shown promise in treating a variety of cancers, but we barely have the capability of producing enough T cells for one dose. This limits the possibility of multiple dosing, safety testing, and long term storage,” Dwarshuis said.
“Current T cell manufacturing protocols do not recapitulate many of the factors that are present in the human body such as the lymph nodes. Therefore, our goal is to improve T cell expansion by creating a process/environment that will mimic the human body, thus optimizing T cell expansion and manufacturing throughput,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to manufacture T cells analogously to the way we produce complex, inanimate products such as cars.”
Farhat was not surprised when she heard Dwarshuis received the fellowship.
“I've known Nate to be a truly exceptional student whether in one of my classes or in the lab working on research projects. He has always impressed me with his strong work ethic and commitment, as well as his innovative thinking and problem solving,” she said. “It's an exciting time for him, and I have no doubt he'll continue to succeed and exceed expectations throughout his time in graduate school.“
Liu studied Mechanical Engineering at Kettering. She’s now studying sustainable energy systems in the Mechanical Engineering department at the University of Michigan.
“I am currently doing life cycle optimization for solid-state lighting. As solid-state technologies, particularly Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs), are becoming the next energy-efficient and long-lasting light source, I am using life cycle assessment and design optimization techniques to optimize the adoption and replacement schedule for LED lamps and luminaires in order to reduce the cost, energy consumption, and environmental impacts owing to lighting,” Liu said. “These results can help inform manufacturers on better lighting design as well as policy-makers on the design of incentives and regulations for lighting.”
Liu is looking into what to pursue next after this project but she is considering studying carbon capture and sequestration technologies, which aim to mitigate climate change by capturing carbons from the air or at the points of emission.
Receiving the NSF fellowship was a big step for Liu.
“I just woke up that morning and went and checked my email as usual. I saw the acceptance letter and I started bawling. I was hopeful but I was preparing myself for the worst,” she said. “It means that I get more freedom to pursue the ideas that I want and work with the faculty I want. It’s validation that I've been doing something right.”
Dr. Craig Hoff, professor and department head for Mechanical Engineering at Kettering, said Liu’s work ethic and love of learning impressed faculty at University of Michigan and the reviewers at NSF.
“Lixi was one of my favorite undergraduate students ever. I first got to know her when she took my hybrid vehicle course a couple of years ago. Despite having little background in automotive engineering or MATLAB/Simulink software she took quickly to both subjects,” Hoff said. “She was not content just to get the right answers on the projects, she really wanted to understand what the numbers meant. She applied this inquisitive nature and love of learning to all of her courses.”
Liu and Dwarshuis said Kettering prepared them for graduate school and conducting research that was important to them.
The biggest learning experiences for Dwarshuis occurred during his co-op terms.
“The most significant takeaway was learning to become an independent thinker. Being a successful researcher depends on asking the right questions and standing by your convictions. This takes courage because there is usually not a clear ‘right’ answer,” he said. “I’m excited to move forward with this research. It allowed me to find my niche. When I found this type of research, it was a great discovery because it built upon much of my previous academic and industrial experience. It’s a very fast moving field, which is exciting for me.”
Liu said the Kagle Leadership Initiatives (KLI) also helped her achieve what she has today. KLI is a pre-college mentoring program whose goal is to help prepare high school students in Flint to become the young leaders of tomorrow through college preparation, leadership roles, and civic engagement.
“Being a mentor in this program for three years helped me cultivate my own disciplinary and leadership skills,” she said. “The experience and connections I’ve made at Kettering have been a great stepping stone for the achievements I have today. I would say it’s how you manage those connections you’ve made that’s going to make a difference.”