Newest NSF Honorees Share Devotion to Improving Our World
11 UT Dallas Students, Alumni Receive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships

Jenny Boothby and Dr. Taylor Ware

Doctoral student Jenny Boothby is among 11 students with ties to UT Dallas chosen this year for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Boothby works on smart materials for biomedical applications in the lab of Dr. Taylor Ware MS'11, PhD'13, assistant professor of bioengineering.

The best and brightest students at The University of Texas at Dallas seek out opportunities to use their expertise and passion to work for the betterment of humanity. Jenny Boothby is one such researcher, envisioning advances to point-of-care technology that would allow diagnosis of diseases to occur as quickly as litmus paper changes color.

Boothby, a doctoral student in the Department of Bioengineering, is among 11 students with ties to UT Dallas chosen this year for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program provides three years of financial support for graduate studies, each year consisting of a stipend of $34,000 plus a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance.

Boothby arrived from Georgia Tech in the fall of 2015 to work in the lab of Dr. Taylor Ware MS'11, PhD'13, assistant professor of bioengineering, on formulating smart materials for biomedical applications. Her work has focused on liquid crystalline films commonly used for products such as LCD screens, but not yet utilized in a biological setting.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program is the country’s oldest fellowship program that directly supports graduate students in various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. This year, 2,000 awards were offered from nearly 13,000 applicants. The award includes a three-year, $34,000 annual stipend plus a $12,000 educational allowance that goes toward tuition and fees.

“We think these polymers can be applicable to biomedical engineering because we can control their order, their molecular structure, so well,” Boothby said. “My specific research is tuning these polymers to be water-responsive so that they can be used in a device in the body, like a heart valve, but without needing an external power source.”

Boothby’s eventual goal involves point-of-care biosensors for developing countries, such as powerless devices capable of replacing expensive, unwieldy electrical equipment for running medical lab tests.

“These small devices would enable you to apply a sample to the device and figure out what disease someone has based on the color change,” Boothby said. “No lab, no reagents — you can fit everything into this piece of plastic. It would open up access to so many more people.”

Boothby’s determination to expand the availability of such technologies crystallized with the help of several experiences beyond our borders, including service trips to Peru and the Dominican Republic.

“Through both of those, I developed this belief that it’s our duty to help others. I feel fortunate to have an opportunity to work on this technology that could bridge that gap, to create something that’s applicable in all environments everywhere, instead of only in resource-rich environments.”

Interim vice president for research Rafael Martín believes the sharp increase in UT Dallas honorees indicates both the University’s growing profile nationwide as well as the strength of UT Dallas’ programs across many disciplines.

“These awards are a tremendous external validation of the quality of both our undergraduate and graduate students,” Martin said. “UT Dallas has been recognized for some time for our academically exemplary undergraduate population. That NSF Graduate Research Fellows are choosing to pursue their graduate education here demonstrates a growing awareness of the quality of our graduate programs and students as well.”

Two UT Dallas alumni who chose to continue their doctoral studies at the University also received NSF fellowships.

  • Diana Alatalo BS’15, MS’16 is a mechanical engineering PhD student who has worked in the Advanced Research in Thermofluid Systems (ARTS) Lab under Dr. Fatemeh Hassanipour since 2012. Her research, which earned her an ASME IMECE First Place Young Engineering Paper Award last year, focuses on the flow behavior of human milk.
  • Danyal Siddiqui BS’15, MS’16 is a bioengineering doctoral student working on dental implant applications of the ceramic biomaterial zirconia in Dr. Danieli Rodrigues’ lab.

Like Boothby, fellowship winner Candace Benjamin came to UT Dallas from out of state. A 2014 graduate of St. John Fisher College in New York, Benjamin is a chemistry doctoral student in the lab of Dr. Jeremiah Gassensmith. Her work concerns developing a virus-like particle as a possible carrier for medication.

Two UT Dallas graduates whose graduate studies have taken them to other prestigious universities were also selected by the NSF.

  • Lauren Weittenhiller BS’14 was a McDermott Scholar and Green Fellow while at UT Dallas, double-majoring in psychology and child learning and development. She is now in a doctoral program at the University of California-Berkeley working on emotional and social processes in schizophrenia spectrum disorders.
  • Emma (Zeyan) Xu BS’15 earned her physics degree at UT Dallas. She will attend Columbia University as a doctoral student in applied physics and applied mathematics in the fall. At Columbia, she’ll study the structure of functional materials at the atomic level for applications including nanostructured pharmaceuticals, energy and electronics materials.

The NSF also chose five students who are expected to earn their undergraduate degrees from UT Dallas in May.

  • Rafi Ayub, who majors in biomedical engineering with a minor in neuroscience, will attend Stanford University for graduate studies. He’s interested in developing novel algorithms for brain-machine interfaces to restore function to stroke patients and paraplegics.
  • While earning her bachelor’s in bioengineering, Shelbi Parker has been working in the lab of Dr. Walter Voit BS’05, MS’06, fabricating bioelectronics devices that stimulate the nervous system. She will attend MIT in the fall.
  • Green Fellow and neuroscience senior Ian Joseph Gonzalez has been working at Dr. Peter Douglas' lab at UT Southwestern Medical Center, studying the role of stress response signaling in cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Gonzalez will attend Yale University in the combined doctoral program in biological and biomedical sciences.
  • Upon earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering this May, Alex Moreno will join UC Berkeley’s doctoral electrical engineering and computer science program. He is interested in studying high frequency circuits that could ignite a new form of alternative energy.
  • Daniel Eilbott also will attend UC Berkeley after participating in the Green Fellows program at UT Southwestern this semester. The physics senior is drawn to the study of condensed matter physics, with the goal of solving problems relevant to sustainable energy.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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