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Seven NSF Graduate Research Fellowships awarded to Rice bioengineering students

By Shawn Hutchins
Rice BIOE News

New research projects at Rice University to fight bacterial drug resistance, reprogram viruses for gene therapy, understand cell and matrix changes in altered flow conditions in heart valve disease, develop minimally invasive cardiac assist devices, and build paper-based tests to detect and monitor HIV, are supported by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).

The Rice bioengineering students who were among the 2,000 selected this year out of close to 17,000 applicants include: doctoral graduate students Shelby Bieritz, Sean Bittner, Kathryn Kundrod, Mollie Smoak, Nikki Thadani, and Dessy Vekilov, and undergraduate student Joao Ascensao. Bioengineering alumna Kim Le (B.S.B. ‘15) was also selected, who is now a biomedical engineering doctoral student at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  

Joao Ascensao.jpg
Joao Ascensao

Ascensao graduated from Rice this past spring with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering and a minor in global health technologies from the Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health. Before beginning his doctoral studies in bioengineering at the University of California at Berkeley/San Francisco, he will conduct research on the dynamics of gene regulatory circuits at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, in Professor Jordi Garcia-Ojalvo’s laboratory. Ascensao’s independent research in Associate Professor Oleg Igoshin’s group at Rice toward understanding how M. tuberculosis responds to hypoxic stress not only contributed to his earning an NSF fellowship but also a Whitaker International Program Fellowship and Fulbright Scholarship.


Sean Bittner.jpgSean Bittner

Bittner, a former Auburn University undergraduate student, will pursue his doctoral studies in bioengineering at Rice as an NSF fellow and as a fellow of the Tau Beta Pi National Engineering Honor Society. While at Auburn, he conducted research in Professor Edward Davis’ laboratory where he focused on loading halloysite nanotubes with antibiotics for wound treatment and infection prevention. His undergraduate work was supported by several Auburn academic and research scholarships.    



Mollie Smoak.jpg
Mollie Smoak

Smoak comes to Rice from Louisiana State University where she worked in Associate Professor Daniel Hayes' laboratory investigating the interaction of biological systems with nano and microscale materials for bone tissue engineering applications. Her undergraduate research was supported by many scholarships, including an Amgen and a Goldwater Scholarship. This summer Smoak is working on a research project in Professor Antonios Mikos’ laboratory in collaboration with Professor Elizabeth Cosgriff-Hernandez of Texas A&M University.   


Dessy Vekilov.jpgDessy Vekilov

Both Bieritz and Vekilov are second-year doctoral graduate students in Rice Professor Jane Grande-Allen’s laboratory. Vekilov will use her NSF fellowship to develop a flow-loop bioreactor to assess how altered mechanical environments affect the behavior of cells and valve tissue over time. She will then use this knowledge to intervene in the cellular signaling pathways involved in valve remodeling, which could lead to a new non-surgical treatment for valve disease. She is also a former fellow of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Med Into Grad program run jointly by Rice and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.  


Shelby Bieritz.jpg
Shelby Bieritz

Bieritz, who is jointly advised by Grande-Allen and William Cohn, a cardiac surgeon and director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Texas Heart Institute, and director of the Department of Surgery Incubator at Baylor College of Medicine, is designing a spiral groove bearing that provides optimal blood flow and reduces shear stress in a minimally invasive cardiac assist device. The bearing design is a culmination of Bieritz’ previous work as a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar and Whitaker Fellow at Griffith University, Australia.   



Kathryn Kundrod.jpgKathryn Kundrod

Kundrod, a first-year doctoral graduate student in Professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum’s laboratory, is designing and testing a way to prepare complex patient samples, such as whole blood, for paper-based lateral flow strips to detect the presence of HIV nucleic acids and viral loads. The current gold standard to diagnose, stage and monitor HIV infection is available only through high-tech lab equipment found in clinical settings. Her testing and translation of the diagnostic technology into medical practice will be guided through collaboration with Rice 360° and in partnership with Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi.  


Nikki Thadani.jpg
Nikki Thadani

Thadani, a second-year doctoral graduate student in Associate Professor Junghae Suh’s laboratory, is engineering non-pathogenic virus-based gene delivery vectors by modifying the virus capsid to undergo conformational changes upon light and temperature stimuli. These transformations allow for the precise spatial and temporal control of vector-cell entry and passage to intracellular targets. This approach allows the reprogrammed viruses to behave as stimuli-sensing nanotherapeutics that effectively deliver gene therapies to the sites of disease while minimizing off-target effects. Such controllable and targeted gene therapies can be used to treat a variety of diseases, including cancer, heart and neurological diseases.

NSF fellowships are substantial and particularly important, because they grant more freedom for students to conduct research under the guidance of a research faculty member of their choosing at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education. The NSF Graduate Fellowship is the oldest fellowship of its kind.