Students Earn Graduate Research Fellowships

Melanie Maurer and Arden Wells

Melanie Maurer (left) and Arden Wells have each earned a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Four years ago, Arden Wells and Melanie Maurer began their UT Dallas experience together as strangers.

Now, the two roommates and Eugene McDermott Scholars will leave the University together, graduating on the same day this spring, each with a 2016 Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Maurer, a senior in biomedical engineering, Wells, a senior in geosciences, and Maria Castaneda, a graduate student in chemistry and biochemistry, are among 2,000 students nationwide to receive the highly competitive award, which provides three years of financial support to attend graduate school and conduct research at a U.S. institution of their choice.

Four UT Dallas alumni who are currently pursuing graduate studies at other universities also were offered the award. 

Maria Castaneda

Maria Castaneda

“These NSF fellowships are awarded in part for outstanding research experience and academic performance,” said Dr. Bruce Gnade, vice president for research at UT Dallas. “But they also recognize the exceptional preparation our student researchers receive, and the promise they display to become independent investigators, educators and leaders in their fields.”

Maurer has won a number of prestigious awards while at UT Dallas, including a scholarship from the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program, a Fulbright Program fellowship, and a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). She has traveled to several spots around the globe, including Germany to conduct cancer research and the Solomon Islands for a medical mission. On campus, she has done research in a variety of areas, including materials science, cancer, stem cell engineering, biomaterials and atherosclerosis.

After graduation, Maurer will spend a year researching in Germany, focusing on directing stem cell differentiation to beating heart cells and working to mature and characterize the cells. In 2017, she will enter the PhD bioengineering program at Cornell University where she will pursue similar research.

“The Graduate Research scholarship process has helped me think critically about research, and to verbalize it in a way that is consistent and coherent,” Maurer said. “This type of scholarship helps set you up for future success. It is an honor to be recognized and it will allow me to really focus on research.”

Wells has conducted research in a Mexican copper mine, watched glaciers calve in Chile, collected data from an active volcano in Colima, Mexico, and trekked in the Himalayas in Nepal with an environmental studies class.

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, awardees were chosen from nearly 17,000 applicants. The award includes a three-year $34,000 annual stipend plus an educational allowance that goes toward tuition and fees.

She will pursue her PhD at Stanford University in its Department of Earth System Science, where she plans to conduct research in hydrology and global water resources. She said that living in New Orleans and seeing her community affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill helped to inspire her interest in preserving the world’s water resources.

“I chose to do environmental research at UT Dallas, which doesn’t really have a formal environmental program. But I definitely found a home here, and professors who were really enthusiastic about encouraging me to follow my passion,” Wells said. “I had the freedom to explore my interests and opportunities to do research on and off campus.”

Even with their globetrotting, busy academic schedules and research responsibilities, Maurer and Wells have managed to keep it all in perspective.

“We have a similar work-life balance, which is very important to us,” Wells said. “We both work really hard, but also recognize the importance of keeping up with friends, having a good social life and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”

Castaneda is a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the current president of UT Dallas’ Chemistry Graduate Student Association. Working under the guidance of Dr. Jiyong Lee, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Castaneda conducts research related to cancer metastasis and relapse. The aim is to develop a type of cancer therapeutic drug that is able to target cancer stem cells and aid in the treatment of chemotherapy-resistant cancers.

Once her PhD is completed, Castaneda hopes to continue with cancer research in an academic setting while also mentoring the next generation of researchers.

“I am very passionate about STEM education and the involvement of underrepresented populations within the STEM fields,” she said.

Castaneda earned her undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Tulsa. She chose UT Dallas for graduate school in part because of its larger size and the greater opportunities for interdepartmental research.

“There is a collaborative atmosphere here that really resonated with the kind of researcher I want to become,” Castaneda said.

McDermott Scholar Named Fulbright Program Recipient

Biomedical engineering senior Melanie Maurer, who received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, also has received a research grant from the Fulbright Program. In addition, she received a research grant from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Maurer, a McDermott Scholar, won a Goldwater Scholarship her junior year.

Maurer had to choose between accepting the Fulbright and the DAAD award, and will use the Fulbright award to fund a research year in Germany. After that, her NSF fellowship will support her PhD research at Cornell University.

Mathematics senior Russell “Charlie” Hannigan, also a McDermott Scholar, was selected as an alternate for the Fulbright Program to be an English teaching assistant in Malaysia. Hannigan plans to eventually enroll in a PhD program in management science and operations management at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, offers fellowships to graduate students and graduating seniors to study or teach in more than 140 countries. The nine-month stipend covers such items as flights, books and living expenses.

Previous UT Dallas Fulbright winners include Abhishek Raj and Braeden Mayer in 2014; Andrew Previc and Maija Wallace in 2013; Samia Hossain in 2010; and Rachel Markowitz in 2008.

“Melanie definitely belongs in our UT Dallas Hall of Fame. With all the distinguished scholarships she has received, she is going out with a bang,” said Dr. Douglas Dow, associate dean of the Honors College and clinical professor of political science.

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

Tagged: ECS NSM