Six graduate students from across five departments of the College of Engineering have been selected for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program in 2021. 

The fellowship program is the country’s oldest in support of doctoral and master’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, as stated by the organization, and its aim is to recognize and empower the next generation of knowledge experts who can contribute in meaningful ways to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

This year’s recipients represent a broad set of interests ranging from the socio-economic implications of flood protection for underserved communities to human-robot interaction. Two of the fellows also represent the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as members of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

"These fellows are honing their expertise in research, leadership, and innovation, while asking critical questions within each of their disciplines," said Pam VandeVord, engineering's associate dean for research and graduate studies. "This award represents an investment in each student’s potential to impact the future of engineering, and it's exciting to see the vision and hard work they’re putting into these fellowships."

Malle Schilling
Malle Schilling. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Malle Schilling
Department of Engineering Education

Third-year doctoral student Malle Schilling will focus her fellowship on a project centered on Appalachian high school students in counties where VT PEERS is working. Led by Jake Grohs, assistant professor of engineering education, VT PEERS partners Appalachian Virginia schools with researchers and industry engineers in in-class activities that teach engineering and science concepts, while highlighting industry connections and job possibilities for students and teachers.

Schilling is interested in these rural students becoming leaders in their communities, so in her research, she’s utilizing guidelines from commissions, like the Appalachian Regional Commission, on strengthening economic resilience and workforce development. 

“My main focus is how we can kind of shift the conversation in engineering education to more of an assets-based approach, focusing on what students bring with them, and asking questions around how rural students use some of those assets in how they approach engineering problems,” said Schilling.

Ben Roston
Ben Roston. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Ben Roston
Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Ben Roston, a master’s student in civil and environmental engineering, was inspired to research flood hazards after Hurricane Sandy wiped away the beaches near his home in Hampton Roads. He has a strong interest in the societal impacts of engineering, and specifically, how engineers solve challenges like climate change and sea level rise. 

As a GRFP fellow, Roston will investigate whether the prioritization of flood protection is contributing to long-term socio-economic inequalities. Levees and flood insurance programs have short-term benefits of reducing risks, but unintentionally produce adverse consequences of increasing development in floodplains, making these risk-prone areas more valuable — and thus, more demanding of protection. As this cycle continues, communities with lower-valued properties are left vulnerable to flooding. 

Roston is working alongside his advisors, assistant professors Megan Rippy and Landon Marston, to apply a model exploring how decision-making processes in floodplain communities contribute to chronic inequalities and how management practices can be improved to address this issue.

Jess Gannon
Jessica Gannon. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Jessica Gannon
Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics

In the Therapeutic Ultrasound and Noninvasive Therapies Laboratory, first-year doctoral student Jessica Gannon and her mentor, Eli Vlaisavljevich, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics, are exploring the use of focused ultrasound histotripsy as an alternative treatment for cancer. Gannon will study treatments for pancreatic cancer, the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, according to recent studies.

As a sophomore, Gannon looked to Vlaisavljevich for help with her application for the Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship. They talked about research ideas, her desire to work in a lab, and her interest in medical device development and pancreatic cancer. He gave her a tour of the lab while explaining his research. When he mentioned that he not only does cancer research, but that it is specific to pancreatic cancer, Gannon said the alignment in interests felt almost unreal. She was awarded the fellowship, though she had the opportunity to work in Vlaisavljevich’s lab whether or not she won the award. That was the beginning of her research on this topic. 

Gannon’s fellowship will allow her to continue this research as she pursues her Ph.D. Her work will add in a partnership with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to test her methodology on large animal models.

Katherine Wardinski
Katherine Wardinski. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Katherine Wardinski
Department of Biological Systems Engineering

Second-year master’s student Katherine Wardinski will build upon her master’s degree research exploring carbon cycling in geographically isolated wetland soils. She hopes her research will inform wetland restoration efforts and help advocate for the protection of vital water resources. 

Wardinski received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 2019. Participating in a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates led her to discover that she was passionate about research and that she wanted to continue her studies in graduate school. Wardinski first joined the Hydroecology and Watershed Engineering research group, led by Durelle Scott, associate professor of biological systems engineering, in the fall of 2019. Scott will serve as her mentor as she carries out her work as a GRFP fellow. 

Wardinski’s outreach efforts as a fellow will include developing a learning module for the summer outreach programs hosted by the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity in the College of Engineering, with Wardinski using her research to illustrate natural solutions in engineering design and generate interest in STEM fields among primary education students.

Melanie Hook
Melanie Hook. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Melanie Hook
Department of Mechanical Engineering

A member of the Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls Lab, Melanie Hook is working with mechanical engineering professor Alexander Leonessa in projects that include a virtual reality simulation that enables testing of robotic exoskeletons. Hook is interested in exploring the possibilities of human-robot interaction.

Hook graduated from Slippery Rock University with a bachelor’s degree in physics, after which she aimed to build on her foundation in physics to pursue further studies in mechanical engineering. Hook chose to attend Virginia Tech for her graduate studies after meeting Alexander Leonessa and becoming more interested in the projects his lab was building.

“In my essay, I talked about how I wanted to be Iron Man when I grew up, and how having that technology available would be really cool,” said Hook of applying to the program. “Ever since I first saw the Marvel movie with my dad in 2008, I have been fascinated with robotics, particularly wearable robotics that could enhance strength and endurance like the Iron Man suit.”

Elizabeth Prior
Elizabeth Prior. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Elizabeth Prior
Department of Biological Systems Engineering

With her fellowship funding, second-year doctoral student Elizabeth Prior aims to better understand and model how vegetation affects flooding, specifically how vegetation resists flow. She will be mentored by Cully Hession of the biological systems engineering department and Valerie Thomas of the forest resources and environmental conservation department.

Prior graduated from Auburn University in 2019 with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, focused on water resources. As an undergraduate, she had such a positive experience with research and working with professors, Prior said, that she decided to pursue a graduate degree.

Prior hopes to conduct outreach activities that make her research more accessible, including creating a practical use guide for incorporating remotely sensed data in watershed projects in collaboration with Virginia Cooperative Extension. She plans to share her research and conduct data collection and processing with the USDA Research Extension Experiential Learning for Undergraduates program, and present a guest lecture for her department’s GIS hydrology class, demonstrating how remote sensing can be utilized in watershed science applications.

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