UD students and alumni earned recognition from the National Science Foundation with grants to help their future research work. Among the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship award winners for 2024 were (top row, left to right) Erin Mulhearn, Shar Daniels, Miyu Mudalamane, Gavin Mullin, (bottom row, left to right) Kristin Chisholm, Qi Zhang and Dana Kullgren.

12 UD students, alumni awarded 2024 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Memories shared with siblings can be the stuff of family legend. Some experiences are quickly forgotten, like the reason for that dark parental stare during some interminably long car ride. Other memories stick, always to be remembered.

University of Delaware doctoral student Gavin Mullin recently added an unexpected highlight to his core memory list: finding out that he and his sister Hollie were both awarded 2024 National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowships.

Mullin is pursuing doctoral studies in social psychology at UD, while his sister Hollie is studying clinical neuropsychology at Pennsylvania State University.

“It has been amazing to be able to celebrate with my sister. We even found out together over FaceTime when the results were released,” Mullin said.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awards graduate research fellowships each spring to promising undergraduate and graduate students around the country who are expected to become knowledge experts in their field. These individuals are anticipated to help advance the nation’s technological infrastructure, national security and economic well-being through their research, teaching and innovations in science and engineering.

At UD, Mullin is among an impressive 12 undergraduate and graduate students and alumni selected for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program’s 2024 Class of Fellows. Three additional UD students and four alumni earned honorable mentions.

“You can see that the work these students are doing at this early point in their scholarly careers is simply breathtaking,” said Lou Rossi, dean of the Graduate College and vice provost for graduate and professional education. “These NSF fellowships are the hallmark of excellence in graduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.”

The highly competitive fellowship is awarded to individuals pursuing full-time, research-based master’s and doctoral programs in STEM fields or STEM education. The oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the award provides a three-year annual stipend of $37,000, and a $16,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees.
Read on to learn about the current and future work planned by UD’s 2024 fellows.

UD’s 2024 Fellows

Qi “Matthew” Zhang, Goldwater Scholar, chemical engineering

Qi “Matthew” Zhang, a senior chemical engineering major and Goldwater Scholar, has conducted a wide range of research while at UD. He has explored lung disease mechanisms, such as how stiffness and the presence of cytokines — substances secreted by certain cells — impair the characteristics and function of lung immune cells and used air-liquid interface models to understand other aspects affecting the pulmonary immune system. Zhang also leveraged tools from 3D cell culture, bioengineering and responsive material design to understand how cells and their microenvironment interact, with the aim of contributing toward the discovery of new therapeutics for managing immune system disorders. Most recently, he characterized ultra-soft biomaterials, such as hydrogels, using atomic-force microscopy to determine their micro-level mechanical properties. His advisers have included chemical engineers Catherine Fromen, Eric Furst and April Kloxin. This fall, Zhang begins doctoral studies in chemical and biological engineering at Princeton University and certification in bioengineering. Ultimately, he plans to pursue a career in academia or biopharmaceutical research and development.

Miyu Mudalamane, Honors College, Goldwater Scholar, chemical engineering

Miyu Mudalamane is a senior honors chemical engineering major with minors in biochemical engineering and sustainable energy technologies. Advised by chemical and biomolecular engineer Aditya Kunjapur, Mudalamane’s research has focused on engineering microbes to produce proteins containing non-standard amino acids. When added into proteins, these non-standard amino acids enable new properties that make the proteins useful as biocatalysts, sensors and therapeutics. Other work included discovery and characterization of enzymes for the safe, sustainable creation of nitroaromatic compounds, a common component of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. This fall, Mudalamane will pursue doctoral studies in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she hopes to work at the interface between sustainability and bioengineering to advance biological systems for producing high-value pharmaceutical and specialty chemicals in an environmentally friendly fashion.

Dana Kullgren, Honors College, Goldwater Scholar, particle physics

Dana Kullgren, a senior honors physics student and Goldwater Scholar, is using machine learning to improve our ability to discover and analyze cosmic-ray radio signals detected by radio antennas at the South Pole. In this work, Kullgren has worked with the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, which consists of special equipment for detecting highly energetic particles from space and is a hub for scientific advancement in astrophysics and particle physics. Cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s atmosphere to produce interesting effects, such as these short pulses of radio waves. Under the guidance of physicist Frank Schroeder and graduate student Abdul Rehman, Kullgren has trained neural networks to obtain clear signals from these radio waves. Kullgren plans to continue studying astroparticle physics this fall as a doctoral student at Pennsylvania State University.

Gavin Mullin, social psychology

Gavin Mullin, a doctoral student studying social psychology, is exploring how identities, group membership and person perception — the cognitive process behind how we categorize people and their behavior — shape social behavior, specifically towards marginalized groups like the LGBTQ+ community. Working with psychologist Peter Mende-Siedlecki, Mullin has examined how conceptual maps support our ability to generalize traits, which can facilitate how we predict others’ behavior. For example, if someone is deemed friendly, are they automatically generous, too? How does this information help individuals predict a person’s behavior in other situations? Further, does racial and gender bias influence perceptions of pain and sadness in faces, and subsequently, treatment recommendations? Mullin is developing a database of faces with gender diverse identities for studying how biases influence perceptions and treatment recommendations of pain and sadness towards gender diverse identities (transgender, non-binary, etc.). Ultimately, he’d like to work in academic research or the nonprofit sector.

Erin Mulhearn, chemistry – chemical measurement and imaging

Erin Mulhearn is a chemistry and biochemistry doctoral student working under the advisement of assistant professor Ariel Alperstein to better understand how proteins fold and aggregate in our bodies. In one project, Mulhearn is exploring how microplastics interact with proteins and potentially alter their structure and function. She also is investigating how functional proteins, called chaperone proteins, influence a chronic condition affecting the heart muscle called desmin fragment-related cardiomyopathy. Both projects use vibrational spectroscopy and other techniques, including two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy (2DIR), which can help researchers gain kinetic, structural and spatial information on biological samples in physiological environments. Following graduate school, Mulhearn plans to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry, studying fundamental problems that negatively impact health.

Sarah “Shar” Daniels, astronomy and astrophysics

Doctoral student Shar Daniels works at the intersection of astrophysics and data science under astrophysicist Federica Bianco. They build deep-learning networks to extract rapid transient phenomena from astronomical survey data. The idea is to look for extreme astrophysical events that test our understanding of high-energy and fundamental physics, such as supernovae, exploding stars, even black holes in other galaxies that are “eating” neighboring stars. Daniels is excited to expand their research to categorize unknown and rare transient astrophysical phenomena in the upcoming Vera Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST). Additionally, as part of their LSST Science Collaboration, Daniels coordinates a mentor-training program for faculty and research scientists who mentor undergraduate and graduate students or junior faculty. Ultimately, they plan to pursue a career in academia, teaching and researching the largest scales of the universe and keeping life balanced as a West Coast Swing dancer.

Kristin Chisholm, STEM Education and Learning Research – educational statistics

Doctoral student Kristin Chisholm is exploring how to engage students, especially those from underrepresented communities, in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education. A former educator with over seven years of classroom experience teaching STEM to high school students, Chisholm’s studies have taken her to local schools to study engagement, connected her with policymakers and education leaders and expanded her mixed methods research skills. Under the advisement of mentor Teomara Rutherford and doctoral adviser Liz Farley Ripple, Chisholm plans to further explore the opportunities and benefits of hands-on educational experiences, such as robotics, in evolving the education system and creating equitable opportunities and lasting engagement for STEM students.

UD alumni

The following UD alumni also will continue their research through the fellowship:

Samuel Freer, Honors College, biomedical engineering, University of Texas at Austin

Rebecca Robertson, entomology, University of Kentucky

Dana Wilkins, Honors College, bioengineering, University of California, Berkeley

Allison George, Honors College, neurosciences, Stony Brook University

Shalom Fadullon, chemical engineering, Northeastern University

Honorable mentions

Awarded honorable mention were the following six undergraduate or graduate students and alumni:

Current UD students:

Nicole Gill, Honors College, chemical engineering

Derek Wu, Honors College, Goldwater Scholar and Eugene du Pont Scholar, environmental biology

Pragati Muthukumar, chemical engineering

UD alumni:

Olivia Duke, Honors College, chemistry/chemical catalysis, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Cassidy McCormick, mechanical engineering, University of California, Berkeley

Hayley Sussman, Honors College, biomedical engineering, University of Virginia Main Campus

Violet Ullman, Honors College, biomedical engineering, University of Pennsylvania

Article by Karen B. Roberts | Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase (featured on UDaily, 05/28/2024)