Undergraduate students awarded NSF Research Fellowships

Seniors pursue graduate research through grants

Akanksha Vaidya Apr 21, 2008

Left with only a few weeks to graduation, many seniors have already made future plans. While most may be looking forward to working after graduating, some intend to veer toward a less traditional direction. Among these are Mariela Zeledón, Geeta Shroff, Henry Deyoung, Melissa Bartel, and Arbob Ahmad, five seniors who received graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

NSF provides the students with three years of funding for a Ph.D. or master’s degree at an institution of their choosing. The award includes a stipend of $30,000 per year and an educational allowance of $10,500. NSF funds students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Zeledón, a biological sciences major, saw benefit in applying for the fellowship as well as winning it. “It [the application] forces you to interact with professors and also gives you the experience of writing [research] proposals, which you are going to end up doing,” Zeledón said.

Zeledón’s research deals with the PBN1 gene found in budding yeast. Yeast cells cannot survive without this gene, but scientists’ knowledge of the gene’s function does not explain this necessity. Zeledón’s research focuses on figuring out a second function of the gene that is necessary for the survival of the cell.

Zeledón plans to continue her research in the field of genetics, her current focus being human genetics. She is particularly interested in psychiatric genetics, which she will be studying at Johns Hopkins University, where she has been admitted into the Ph.D. program.

Shroff, a computer science and ECE double major and one of the winners of this prestigious scholarship, stressed the importance of working for passion, not scholarship rewards. “Always do what you want to do; don’t just do something for [a] scholarship,” she said. “As long as you keep doing what you really want to do, it will all come out on paper in the end.”

Shroff found her passion in developing technology for diabetics and the disabled, and is currently working on two projects based on this idea. The first consists of developing a device that will help diabetics monitor their diets, while the second aims to help the blind with their transportation needs. Shroff said that she wants to study how technology can be used positively in developing countries like India and Africa.

Until now, Shroff has been dealing with the application of technology for community service. Shroff intends to explore the theories behind technology that can be formulated to best benefit humans.

“Now I think I am more interested in the algorithms behind it [the technology], but I somehow want to connect it to community service,” Shroff said. Using the NSF fellowship, Shroff will remain at Carnegie Mellon to pursue her master’s degree in computer science.

Currently focused on research in logic and programming language design, Deyoung plans to invest his fellowship into exploring distinct methods in web security.
“If a file is protected, it can be accessed by a user only if he proves that he has access to it,” said Deyoung, a computer science major. The statement given by the user is compared to the security policies, and the user will only be allowed access if the answer complies with security, Deyoung explained.

Deyoung’s earlier research focused on setting a time constraint to such programs; he added inputs to the programs so that users were allowed access at only specific times.

Deyoung said, “It seems that the purpose of the NSF fellowship is to provide funding for things that aren’t traditionally well-funded. There is freedom to pursue your own ideas.” Deyoung plans to continue his graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon.

A chemical and biomedical engineering double major, Bartel’s NSF fellowship goes toward a different area of science, as she studies organic compounds found inside the human body. A number of organic compounds in organisms contain “chiral” carbon atoms, atoms with four different groups or atoms attached to them.

“Different arrangements of the atoms around the central carbon can produce pairs of molecules which are non-superimposable mirror images of each other, called a pair of enantiomers,” Bartel explained.

The human body contains only one enantiomer of each pair for most compounds. If the wrong enantiomer enters the human body, the results can be fatal. Many pharmaceutical drugs contain both enantiomers, which have to be separated before humans can take the drugs. Bartel is using nanotechnology to develop a fast and efficient technique for the separation process.

Recently, Bartel proved that gold nanoparticles coated with the amino acid cysteine were capable of separating a mixture of propylene oxide enantiomers. Bartel intends to incorporate nanotechnology into biology and medicine. She has been accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley, and plans to continue her research there next fall.

Ahmad, a computer science and mathematics double major and the fifth recipient of the NSF fellowship, said, “I would encourage students to look for research opportunities early in their college careers. This helped me determine that I wanted to go to graduate school and improved my applications for fellowships and graduate schools.”

Ahmad’s research involves programming languages. His research aims to develop a programming language that allows users to efficiently write correct programs.
“My project seeks to give an algorithm for deciding equality of terms in a simple language,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad believes that it is important to not only have a strong research background, but also to have knowledge about other research being conducted in the same field. Ahmad will pursue his Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon.

The achievements of these seniors are just one example of the strengths of Carnegie Mellon. Students interested in contributing to this success may want to think about applying for the NSF graduate research fellowship. Applications can be found at NSF