Graduate fellowship created for students in MCS

Mellon College of Science has created the Astrid and Bruce McWilliams Fellowship to support graduate students who are pursuing scientific research. The fellowship is funded by a $1 million gift from Carnegie Mellon alumnus Bruce McWilliams and his wife Astrid McWilliams.

McWilliams received his B.S., master’s and Ph.D. (1981) in physics at Carnegie Mellon.
The McWilliams Fellowship will pay for the tuition and fees of three doctoral students. The fellowship lasts for one year, beginning in July.

Rea Freeland, associate dean for special projects for the Mellon College of Science, said the McWilliamses “wanted to support advances in research areas important to the college, including nanotechnology, which is important both to Bruce McWilliams and to Mellon College of Science.”

Freeland said that McWilliams is interested in helping Mellon College of Science achieve its goals. Freeland stated in an e-mail, “He wants to support our ongoing initiatives and catalyze great progress on those while he also supports excellent graduate students.”

McWilliams said that he hopes the fellowship will contribute to education and meet the needs of society and industry.

“I think it will make the university more competitive,” McWilliams added.

McWilliams said that before making his donation, he first asked President Cohon what would most benefit the university. McWilliams said that many graduate students are not funded internally, and the new fellowship is meant to allow students and their professors expand their research.

In particular, the fellowship is intended for students who are conducting research in nanotechnology, biophysics, and cosmology.

“That’s a personal interest of mine,” he said.

McWilliams is CEO, president and chairman of Tessera Technologies, which is headquartered in Silicon Valley and has offices around the world.

Tessera Technologies constructs parts for various types of electronics, including MP3 players, computers, and hearing implants.

“We do all kinds of things with materials,” McWilliams said.

According to a Carnegie Mellon press release, three students were selected to receive the fellowship, and they all conduct different types of research.

Chemistry doctoral student Andrea Benvin is researching fluorescent DNA nanotags, for which she was published in the January issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Fluorescent nanotags are bright labels on DNA molecules that enable researchers to detect cancerous cells.

Haifeng Gao, another chemistry doctoral student, is researching polymeric nanogels. Nanogels are insulation materials that may, in Gao’s research, influence drug delivery.

Physics doctoral student Sandeep Gaan, on the other hand, is studying the surface of semiconductors using scanning tunnel microscopy. Freeland said that the McWilliams Fellowship will allow Gaan to direct more attention toward studying pentacene molecules on the surface of semiconductors. Pentacene molecules are special types of hydrocarbons, compounds that consist of hydrogen and carbon atoms.

“Meeting the students was a rewarding experience for me,” McWilliams said.

According to Freeland, one of the benefits of receiving this fellowship is that the recipients do not have to become teaching assistants. She said that the fellowship also provides graduate students with greater flexibility in conducting their research.

“The McWilliams [Fellowship] is the largest endowed gift in recent years for graduate fellowships in MCS,” Freeland said. She noted that the physics department received a significant gift in 2005 from the estate of George Pake that also supported doctoral students.

The McWilliams Fellowship also includes $1000 for travel to a conference. Freeland said that graduate students appreciate this kind of support, as it is typically difficult for them to obtain funds for trips.

McWilliams hopes that the fellowship will attract top-tier students and help the university grow.

“A department that is recognizing excellence in their students is an attractive feature [to prospective graduate students],” Freeland said.

Freeland said, “There’s also prestige with receiving a fellowship of this type,” both for the
student’s future research interests and the school’s image.

McWilliams said that Carnegie Mellon is well known for its interdisciplinary collaboration.
“That’s what really happens in the real world,” McWilliams said. Speaking of Carnegie Mellon,
he said, “I think they’ll do very well long term.”

McWilliams currently serves on the Physics Advisory Board (PAB) for Mellon College of Science. The PAB is a committee that meets every four or five years to discuss physics-related matters in MCS. The board reports on these matters to the university president.

“He has a good insight into how many things are working in the physics department,” said Freeland.

When asked whether she thinks the McWilliams Fellowship will lead to similar gifts in the future, Freeland said, “People are always inspired by the involvement of others.”