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Three materials science graduate students earn elite NSF fellowships

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Three materials science and engineering doctoral students — representing six in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences — are among the 21 new National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) recipients for the 2022-23 academic year.

They are Aiden Ross, Erik Furton and Maria Rochow.

Aiden Ross’ research focuses on ferroelectric nanomaterials and explores methods to develop new or enhanced applications. Ross, who works out of the Materials Research Institute, uses theory and computer simulations to explore how a material’s shape, surface, and crystal structure can impact its properties.

Understanding this interplay, he said, is critical to leveraging the unique properties that emerge in nanostructures to produce novel materials with unique properties. Engineering novel materials could play a key role in targeted on-demand drug delivery, high-density dielectric energy storage, piezoelectric nanogenerators and next-generation solid-state cooling devices.

“The most exciting thing about my research is getting the opportunity to follow my curiosity,” Ross said. “So many strange and exciting phenomena can occur, and I am always interested in finding and testing new explanations. There is essentially an unlimited number of opportunities within computational materials research to follow one’s curiosity and find innovative solutions to humanity’s current problems.”

Ross wants to use his research to create new and useful materials by exploring three-dimensional structures such as nanotubes, multilayers and superlattices. He always wants to encourage greater representation in STEM fields by communicating the science beyond academic journals.

Furton researches the effect flaws such as pores have on the mechanical behavior of additively manufactured metals. Understanding how flaws affect materials, he said, is critical for metal processing technologies such as welding, casting and powder metallurgy. He said the beauty of additive manufacturing is that it allows for the flaws to be repeated, which improves our understanding of these defects and the failures that can result from them.

“For example, we can put a one-millimeter flaw at the very center of a sample and compare it against a two-millimeter flaw, and see how much weaker the material is due to the flaw,” Furton said. “Then we run simulations, see how well the simulations agree with the experiments, and those discrepancies help us improve those models.

Furton said he’s excited about the research because it has the potential for making lightweight load-bearing structures. Before that, he said, we’ll have to understand how flaws affect the mechanical properties of the material.

Furton said the GRFP gives him the funding he needs to continue research he’s passionate about. His goal is to dive deep into the research and help advance the field while understanding the science behind the discoveries.

Rochow researches how ions move through ion-conducting polymer membranes. The technology is used in renewable energy applications such as batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.

The fellowship, Rochow said, grants her increased flexibility in deciding which avenues she wants her research to take. It gives her time to explore the most pressing research questions she wants to answer.

She’s excited to be working on the forefront of exploration as the world shifts to sustainably sourced fuels. She’s also fascinated by how the structure relationship of these materials can be manipulated to improve performance.

“I aim to equip myself with the knowledge and skills to become a pioneer who leads the next generation of scientists in finding solutions for a more sustainable, clean-energy future by making meaningful contributions to the field of membrane science and more broadly to humanity itself Rochow said.

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