Two UT Dallas Undergraduate Researchers Earn National Science Foundation Awards

Two UT Dallas undergraduate students have received 2014 Graduate Research Fellowships (GRF) from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Recipients of these highly competitive awards receive financial support for three years to attend graduate school and conduct research at a U.S. institution of their choosing.

Rain Mariano

Rain Mariano

The awards include an annual $32,000 stipend plus an educational allowance that goes toward tuition and fees. In addition, GRF recipients have opportunities to participate in international collaborations through the NSF’s Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) program.

UT Dallas’ Rain Mariano, a chemistry senior, and Abhishek Raj, an electrical engineering senior, are among the 2,000 recipients nationwide to receive this year’s awards. Additional fellowship recipients include three former UT Dallas students who now are pursuing graduate studies at other universities.

'Opportunity to Jump-Start His Career'

“Having served as an NSFGRF panel chair for several years, I can tell you that NSF takes a holistic approach to evaluating applications, which includes academic performance, awards, publications, research experience and plans, as well as education/outreach efforts and leadership potential,” said Dr. Kenneth Balkus, a chemistry professor and Mariano’s faculty advisor.

“Rain has a strong record in all these areas, including co-authorship of three peer-reviewed papers, so it doesn’t surprise me that he earned this award,” Balkus said. “He is now part of an exclusive club that includes Nobel Prize winners and members of the National Academy of Sciences. He has been given an incredible opportunity to jump-start his career.”

Mariano has been accepted to Stanford University. He plans to conduct energy-related research focusing on catalyzing the transformation of abundant materials, such as nitrogen, water and carbon dioxide, into useful chemicals or fuels, including ammonia, hydrogen or alcohol.

“Being selected for the fellowship is an incredible feeling, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to fully pursue my interests in energy research,” Mariano said. “My experiences at UT Dallas have cemented my dream to eventually join academia. I owe much to the amazing individuals who enabled my success, especially my mentors, Dr. Kenneth Balkus, Dr. Jie Zheng, Dr. John Sibert and Dr. Sanjaya Perera.”

Mariano has been involved in research since he was a UT Dallas freshman. He also has been an active member of the Chemistry Student Association, which has been recognized for the past several years as a top student chapter of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Mariano received an ACS Student Leadership award in 2013.

'Knack for Hands-On Synthesis'

Raj has worked with Dr. Walter Voit, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, in the Advanced Polymer Research Lab since the summer before his freshman year, researching the application of shape-memory polymers to flexible electronics. He has served as an ambassador for the lab to several national and international technical conferences, including first-author poster presentations.

“Abhi has a knack for hands-on synthesis in the lab and picks up on new things much more quickly than other students,” Voit said. “As a freshman and sophomore, he was awarded an Undergraduate Research Scholar Award for his dedication to research and technical innovations. Abhi is an outstanding student, a true gentleman and a hardworking scholar. His passion and enthusiasm make him an ideal candidate for these competitive awards.”

This three-year fellowship allows me a lot of flexibility to pursue research without having to seek additional funding. It’s a testament to the great faculty at UT Dallas, like Dr. Voit, and to undergrad research in general.

Abhishek Raj,
engineering senior

Raj, who is a McDermott Scholar, will spend the next year in Germany researching the application of flexible electronics to the body, with a particular focus on cochlear implants and using optogenetic tools to stimulate the cochlea. He plans to use his NSF fellowship to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering at Princeton University, where he has been accepted.

“This three-year fellowship allows me a lot of flexibility to pursue research without having to seek additional funding,” Raj said. “It’s a testament to the great faculty at UT Dallas, like Dr. Voit, and to undergrad research in general.”

Raj also helped found an outreach program at UT Dallas called the High School COMETS (Community Outreach in Materials Engineering Technology and Science), since rebranded to a fully fledged student organization called R.I.S.E. (Reaching and Inspiring Student Engineers). The program enables graduate students, undergraduate students and other faculty in the department to visit local high schools and middle schools, and engage students at all levels with hands-on science demos and explanations. 

Abhishek Raj 

Raj Earns Fulbright,DAAD Scholarships

The same week electrical engineering senior Abhishek Raj received a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, he also received scholarships from the Fulbright Program and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Raj, who is a McDermott Scholar, won a Goldwater Scholarship his sophomore year.

“You put in all this time doing research, and it’s nice to be recognized for your work as well as the potential for your future research,” Raj said of the triple honor. “It’s a pretty great honor, and it’s exciting to plan the trajectory of what’s to come, being able to work with leading researchers at all these institutions.”

Raj 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, his NSF fellowship will support his PhD research at Princeton University.

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 Andrew Previc and Maija Wallace in 2013; Samia Hossain in 2010; and Rachel Markowitz in 2008.

“Abhi is an outstanding student in every way. He’s just a wonderful, wonderful guy,” said Dr. Douglas Dow, coordinator of the Office of Distinguished Scholarships and associate director of the University’s Collegium V Honors Program.

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

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