College of Engineering and Computer Science Ph.D. student Ariel Ash-Shakoor is a research assistant in the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute.

By Kathleen Haley

Doctoral student Ariel Ash-Shakoor is helping create biomaterials that are more biocompatible, better able to interact with human cells that are damaged or diseased.

As a research assistant in the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute (SBI), the third-year bioengineering graduate was given a strong nod of encouragement to continue through a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP).

NSF GRFP is open to early-stage graduate students and graduating seniors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines; social science; and behavioral science fields.

Ash-Shakoor engineers biomaterials to understand the effects of chemistry, topography and stiffness on cell behavior with the biomaterial, with specific areas of wound healing and stem cell applications.

“For example, if there is an implant in the body and if it’s rough or positively charged or it’s too soft, then the cells might not like it and not want to stick to it,” Ash-Shakoor says. “So that’s what I want to understand: what’s more important, the fact that it’s too soft? Or is it the fact that it’s too rough, or too smooth, or a positive charge, or a negative charge?”

Ash-Shakoor, whose mentors are Patrick Mather, the Milton and Ann Stevenson Professor of Biomedical and Chemical Engineering and SBI director, and Associate Professor James Henderson, is one of three Syracuse University students in 2014 to win the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

The other winners are Kelsey John, a Ph.D. student in cultural foundations of education, and David Wilson ’14, a graduate in biomedical engineering who began a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University this fall.

$32,000 annual stipend

Fellows receive a three-year annual stipend of $32,000, along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, and have opportunities for international research and professional development, while conducting their research at any U.S. graduate institution.

Ash-Shakoor applied for the fellowship as her time as a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) fellow was ending. “It allows you creative freedom, and so that’s why I think it’s appealing to me and many other students,” says Ash-Shakoor, who also appreciated the possibility of international research. “You get to design or pitch your own project or whatever you’ve been working on previously.”

NSF Fellow David Wilson, a 2014 graduate in biomedical engineering

Wilson was encouraged to apply by his undergraduate research advisor, Associate Professor Rebecca Bader, whom he had worked for in SBI. “I honestly didn’t think I had that great of a chance,” says Wilson, noting he would be competing with many accomplished students across the country with multiple publications.

Students can make their case in the two written pieces in the application, a personal essay and a research statement.

Wilson, who took part in Bader’s lab as part of the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates and served as a mentor in the NSF Research Experience and Mentoring Program, proposed adapting the research he did as an undergraduate involving targeted drug delivery for rheumatoid arthritis to the delivery of photothermal therapy agents for the treatment of cancer.

“There’s very little chance anyone will do that research, but it’s more that they’re looking for you to think innovatively,” Wilson says.

The fellowship now means he doesn’t have to worry about costs for three years and can keep his focus on the work.

Targeted gene delivery

Wilson is now working in the biomaterials and drug delivery lab of Associate Professor Jordan Green on treating cancers, such as an invasive type of brain cancer that is difficult to treat, with targeted gene delivery.

“With gene delivery you can knock down certain genes in tumor cells and then either change their genetic expression to make them more susceptible to chemo or radiation treatments or make the cells basically self-destruct,” Wilson says.

People become sick from treatments because chemotherapy or radiation are applied at high doses, arresting cell division of both healthy and tumor cells.

“With gene therapy, you could potentially have treatments where it wouldn’t make you sick to be treated. The research I’m working on now is only a tiny portion of that goal, but it’s very long process,” Wilson says.

Race and education

NSF Fellow Kelsey John is a School of Education Ph.D. student in cultural foundations of education.

For John, the fellowship is helping her interdisciplinary work in the areas of sociology and social psychology to look at issues of race and education.

John says it was a little unorthodox for an education student to apply for an NSF fellowship. “But one of the major things in my research is bridging gaps and finding common ground between different camps of thought,” John says. “I felt like I could situate it in a way that would do that and have implications more broadly than if I only situated it within an education context.”

John began researching as an undergraduate about multiracial identity, an interest partly from her own background, and for the NSF she proposed looking at how multiracial identity functioned at an institutional level.

“I really wanted to get at the complexity of that by looking at how a mixed race individual, particularly Native American multiracial people, navigate these systems,” John says. “It gets very complicated with mixed race and especially with Native American people who also have another element of tribal enrollment that comes along with identity.”

John will be conducting a social psychology experiment looking at Native American identity and how it’s perceived in higher education. Later, she’ll conduct interviews for more qualitative research.

Expanding science

John encourages other students to consider how their work might fit with an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

“Even if it seems your work wouldn’t necessarily fit into what one would conceive of as science, I would argue that it probably does and it can expand on the idea of what we think of as science,” says John, whose faculty advisor is Professor Gretchen Lopez.

Along with the three students, four others were awarded honorable mentions: Shelby Buffington, a Ph.D. student in bioengineering; Elise Hinman, a Ph.D. student in biology; Leanna Matthews, a Ph.D. student in biology; and Ryan Milcarek ’14, a Ph.D. student in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

To help students prepare for the next round of NSF GRFP applications, the Office of Research, the Graduate School and the Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising are partnering for the second year to offer writing workshops.

Group writing workshops for undergraduate and graduate students who are applying will be held Friday, Oct. 3, from 2- 4 p.m., and Friday, Oct. 17, from 2-4 p.m. Both sessions will be held in 347 Hinds Hall. More information about the writing workshops can be found at http://nationalscholarships.syr.edu/?page_id=458.

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