Image of ARCS Fellows
ARCS Fellows with Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri (center)

ARCS Foundation Fellowships Give Science and Engineering Scholars More Research Options

Fellowships are the financial lifeblood of doctoral students fortunate enough to receive them. For a dozen University of California, Berkeley Ph.D. candidates, fellowship funding comes with an added benefit: more flexibility to follow their interests when choosing a research project.

Image of ARCS LogoThese doctoral students are the recipients of fellowships from the Northern California Chapter of the ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) Foundation, an all-volunteer national organization of women that supports outstanding graduate scholars in science, engineering, and medical research. This dozen are the latest in a long line of students ARCS has supported at Berkeley since 1975.

“We have an interest in looking to the future and supporting the steps and the people who are working on the projects that can improve lives and take us to the next level in the knowledge we can achieve,” says ARCS Foundation Northern California Vice President of Communications Elaine Oldham, who is a Berkeley graduate herself.

The ARCS Foundation Fellowships, among the most prestigious on campus, are open to doctoral students in 21 departments and interdisciplinary graduate groups. Recipients are nominated by faculty in their program and chosen on the basis of academic preparation, intellectual potential, and motivation. Only those in the top 10 percent of the applicant pool are eligible for consideration.

Currently, ARCS Scholars receive $28,500 for living expenses, plus payment of tuition and registration fees, in each of the five years. Their fellowships are funded by both the ARCS Foundation and the Graduate Division for the first two years and by the academic departments for the next three years in the form of a teaching or research appointment or departmental fellowship. The ARCS Foundation also recognizes the students with a $500 award in each of these three years.

“We like to see ourselves as an organization that supports cutting-edge research and generously supports the sciences,” says Oldham. “These scholars represent the best and brightest the country has to offer.”

The 2012–2013 Berkeley ARCS Scholars and their research prove her point.

Mark Levin, Chemistry

An introductory chemistry class changed the course of Mark Levin’s life. Originally he planned to go into medicine. Instead, he’s working toward a Ph.D. in chemistry and an academic career.
“I fell in love with the subject,” says Levin, who became a research assistant for the professor who taught that introductory class and then earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry.

Mark LevinNow a first-year Berkeley doctoral student, Levin is researching gold chemistry as a member of Professor Dean Toste’s lab. This isn’t the first time Levin has worked with Toste.The summer between his junior and senior years at the University of Rochester, Levin came to Berkeley to do research as an Amgen Scholar. Levin’s ARCS Fellowship funding gave him the opportunity to rejoin the lab of one of the world’s leading gold chemistry experts and the flexibility to choose his own research project.

Currently, Levin is investigating gold-catalyzed cross-coupling reactions, which involves using the metal to bond two hydrocarbon fragments. Levin says, “This is typically done with palladium, but the reaction is essentially unknown for gold. I’m looking for a transformation that gold hasn’t previously been shown to do.”

Levin wants to prove this is possible because gold is easier to handle, more tolerant of water, and less toxic than palladium. He explains, “This makes it easier to run reactions in an industrial application.”

Though he’s focused on research, Levin also enjoys teaching. He was a teaching assistant as an undergraduate and has already taught an organic chemistry lab course since starting graduate school. Even before Levin had any official teaching duties, he regularly held review sessions for classmates. He says now, “I think that was the first indication I was leaning toward an academic career.”

Nick Ellis, Molecular and Cell Biology

Nick EllisLike many scientists, Nick Ellis is turning to the threespine stickleback for answers to important questions about human biology. This third-year doctoral student in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology is studying this fish common to creeks along the U.S. West Coast and elsewhere in the Northern hemisphere to understand the evolution of its dentition. His work could help better identify and address the causes of human craniofacial and dental defects.

Ellis explains that the stickleback long ago migrated inland from the ocean, invading freshwater lakes and streams. To adapt to its new environment, the fish developed different biological traits. The one that interests Ellis is the stickleback’s doubling of its number of teeth. He’s examining their tooth formation and replacement and says, “Much of the science in tooth formation is done with mice rather than fish, but mice don’t replace their teeth. Teeth provide a great model for organ formation, and tooth formation is repeated over time in fish, so we have a model for regeneration, too. It can help in determining why some humans don’t replace certain teeth or replace too many.”

When he completes his doctoral research, Ellis hopes to understand how and where the process of doubling the number of teeth takes place in the stickleback and whether this process can be sped up or slowed down to alter teeth patterns. For now, says Ellis, “Every time I answer one question, another four questions come up.”

That’s part of the attraction of science for Ellis, however. Realizing as an undergraduate that he enjoyed the scientific process, Ellis wanted to continue pursuing his interests in development, genetics, and regeneration as a doctoral student. He notes, “One of the hardest things in science, especially in the current economy, is getting funding. It’s great to have an organization like the ARCS Foundation believe in you and be willing to support your research.”

Willie Mae Reese, Materials Science and Engineering

While in high school, Willie Mae Reese read an article describing how researchers were making synthetic skin and became fascinated by tissue regeneration. Today, she’s researching this topic herself as a member of Professor Kevin Healy’s Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Laboratory.

Willie Mae ReeseThe first-year materials science and engineering doctoral student is examining nanoscale stem cell patterning. Reese is seeking to understand the mechanisms that cause one surface to attract cells and others to repel them, and whether it’s possible to create cell-repellent surfaces. What she learns could help prevent formation of unwanted scar tissue or rejection of biological implants in the human body.

“Patterning devices to repel cells can prevent these responses from the body,” says Reese, who notes that it may also be possible to encourage tissue regeneration by patterning where growth would be desirable.

Currently, Reese is focused on fundamental research rather than a specific application. She’s using a laser to change the behavior of cells on surfaces. Reese will subsequently modify her application method to incorporate a focused ion beam, which will permit more precise patterning.

“I always knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. because I wanted to be a professor. You can pursue fundamental questions and get to be on the frontier of science,” says Reese.

She also looks forward to a professor’s teaching responsibilities. Reese already has some teaching experience. She joined Teach for America after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then taught high school in Atlanta. Reese says, “I had excellent teachers when I was younger, and after Teach for America, I saw teaching as even more rewarding.”

Orianna DeMasi, Computer Science

Orianna DemasiFor first-year doctoral student Orianna DeMasi, the greatest challenge of computer science research is narrowing her areas of study. Then it’s a matter of fitting all she wants to do into her days.

“To be in the Bay Area in computer science is a blessing because so much happens here,” says DeMasi, who first came to California and to computer science while applying her undergraduate math degree as a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory computer systems engineer. “Computer science is so fulfilling that I want to work on it all the time. It combines the really hard theory and math that I enjoy doing cognitively with applications that can help people and change the world.”

For now, DeMasi’s primary focus is the interaction of machine learning and distributed computing. She’s taking techniques from machine learning to make code run faster, thereby improving high-performance computing.

“It’s part of making computers better and making computing faster so we can do things we couldn’t do before. Because I worked at the Berkeley Lab, I know this is important for science applications,” DeMasi explains. “Right now, I’m looking at linear algebra, which typically runs the most time and is at the core of large simulations. Accelerating the most frequently run part will accelerate the whole code. You’ll never see it, but it will make a computer run faster.”

Part of multiple research laboratories, DeMasi is also seeking to determine how to make algorithms run faster on multiple computers. She says, “There are so many things to work on that it’s hard for me to find my place. What can I do? What do I want to do?”

DeMasi believes her ARCS Fellowship is helping her resolve these questions. She explains, “It’s important to do the research—to feel out what I can do, what’s important, and how I fit into the larger scientific community. The fellowship lets me focus on my research as a first-year graduate student and helps me grow as a researcher at a much faster rate.”

Mark Lipke, Chemistry

Mark Lipke’s passion for science began in the backyard of his childhood home in Florida, where he recalls seeing space shuttle launches in the distance. Later, he and his brothers made model rockets. Eventually, Lipke settled his scientific interests on chemistry, and he earned an undergraduate degree in the subject from Case Western Reserve University.

Mark Lipke“Chemistry is an expression of being a fairly creative person, of not just seeing and observing but experimenting,” says Lipke, who’s now a fifth-year doctoral student in chemistry.

Today, Lipke’s experimentation focuses on catalysis. As he explains, a catalyst makes chemistry more efficient. This can help make industrial processes more environmentally friendly and medications less expensive.

Lipke has developed a new method for selective functionalization of the carbon energy bond, which involves pulling apart carbon and hydrogen atoms and replacing hydrogen with a different element. In Lipke’s work, that element is silicon.

“Developing novel, unusual structures for silicon is the basis of my two publications to date,” says Lipke, who also has been invited to present his research at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Like all researchers, Lipke has experienced setbacks en route to success. He says, “The ARCS Fellowship gives me strength during the most challenging times in my research. When I get a result that doesn’t make sense or I struggle to understand, I know people believe in me. Having the funding has been a source of motivation for me. When everything comes clear and I discover something really interesting, it’s the most amazing feeling. This is what I’ve dreamed of doing for as long as I can remember.”

Kathryn Fink, Bioengineering

Testing for diabetes, HIV, and many other medical conditions involves manipulating blood. Depending where the test takes place, this process can be simple or simply impossible.  As Kathryn Fink explains, “You have to be able to separate red blood cells and blood plasma. Traditionally, this is done with a centrifuge, but in a developing country, you may not have access to a centrifuge or it costs too much.”

Kathryn FinkFink, a third-year bioengineering doctoral student, is investigating the use of micro-scale filter trenches to separate blood samples into their components on a chip. With this technique, plasma goes into the trenches, and red blood cells stay behind.

“We don’t yet fully understand why it works or what allows the blood to separate. If we understand why it works, we can use it for other applications and build from there,” Fink says. “Using micro fluids in lab-on-a-chip devices has the potential to make a big impact on healthcare very soon. This could be transformative domestically and internationally. It has huge potential in global applications where you don’t have complex medical equipment or highly trained medical personnel.”

Though Fink has always enjoyed the biological sciences and comes from a family of engineers, she took an indirect path to a Ph.D. program. First she came to California from her Colorado hometown to work for a company involved in auto safety research. Only then did she decide to complete her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California. As part of this education, she completed a fluids mechanics research internship at HRL Laboratories.

“I worked with people who had Ph.D.s, and people with Ph.D.s want others to get a Ph.D. too. I was eventually persuaded by the idea,” Fink says.

She clearly made the right choice: Not only was Fink awarded an ARCS Fellowship, she’s since received a three-year National Science Foundation Fellowship in recognition of her promising research.

Fink plans to remain a researcher once she earns her Ph.D. but also to return to industry. She says, “The ability to translate research into a real product is important to me.”

Brian McDonald, Civil and Environmental Engineering

“I study air quality. The issues are complex scientifically, politically, and socially,” says fifth-year doctoral student Brian McDonald.

Since coming to Berkeley, McDonald has been able to explore all of these facets. In addition to working toward a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering, he’s earned a master’s degree in public policy. McDonald says, “My ARCS Fellowship allowed me to pursue a Ph.D. while taking classes at the Goldman School of Public Policy. This has enabled me to look at my engineering research from a policy perspective and communicate my results beyond the scientific community.”

Brian McDonaldMcDonald, who is developing alternative methods of estimating vehicle emissions and modeling their effects on the environment, is particularly interested in the connections between emissions and human health. He says, “There are millions of vehicles, and we can think of them as little factories moving around. But unlike a single power plant, which tends not to have many people living nearby, vehicles can expose a lot of people in a small area to emissions.”

Regulatory agencies attempt to measure vehicle emissions, but McDonald says these estimates are unreliable. He points to a flaw in the data analysis method, noting, “Emissions in vehicles aren’t distributed evenly over the vehicle fleet. Ten percent of vehicles account for 80 to 90 percent of emissions.”

To produce more accurate results, McDonald is taking a different approach. He’s analyzing on-road studies reporting emissions per fuel mile burned, then combining this information with fuel and traffic data to understand where emissions are happening in time and space.

“This can capture emissions from 10,000 vehicles rather than 100. With a large sample, you can capture the high-emitting vehicles,” says McDonald.

Beyond his current research, McDonald sees a need to further understand the relationship between vehicle emissions and air quality. He points to several issues: How clean is the energy powering electric cars? How do high-traffic highways influence pollution hot spots? How do you balance the desire for vehicles in developing countries such as China and India with the impact of this increased volume on the environment?

“I plan to pursue each of these dimensions,” says McDonald.

Alexandra Landry, Chemical Engineering

Alexandra Landry is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering for a simple reason: She wants to continue learning about the subject she studied as a North Carolina State University undergraduate. She notes, however, “I’m not the standard academic type who dreams of being a professor.”

Alexandra LandryBefore coming to Berkeley, Landry completed internships at Unilever, where she worked with its Hellmann’s mayonnaise product—something she describes as “not a standard chemical engineering application”—and at Exxon, where she was able to apply her knowledge of thermodynamics. Along the way, Landry realized she still wanted to learn more about her field. That led her to Berkeley as an ARCS fellowship recipient.

“Coming in, I knew I wanted to understand the kinetics behind reactions, and I looked around to see what projects were available or of interest to me,” says Landry. “With the ARCS Fellowship, I was able to choose based on the professors rather than on funding.”

Landry is now a member of the Laboratory for the Science and Applications of Catalysis headed by Professor Enrique Iglesia, where she’s studying particles composed of two different metals and the interplay of these metals. Landry wants to understand how having two metals on a single nanoparticle affects reactions. She’s working with gold and platinum, although she explains that the effect of the mixing of metals on a single nanoparticle on the catalyst’s reactivity matters more than the specific metals used. Her work could help lead to the production of more efficient and cost-effective fuel cells, such as those found in a car’s catalytic converter.

Despite spending her days in a university lab, Landry still doesn’t see an academic career in her future. Instead, she envisions herself as a research scientist in industry, or perhaps a consultant. Landry says, “I like the idea of working on several different projects and continuing to learn about new fields as new projects come up.”

Felicia Svedlund, Materials Science and Engineering

“I was interested in science and math, so engineering was an obvious choice. Then I heard a presentation about materials science and medical applications that really spoke to me,” says third-year materials science and engineering doctoral student Felicia Svedlund.

Felicia SvedlundWhat she heard another time set her on her current course: While still deciding on a doctoral program, Svedlund learned during her visit to Berkeley that she’d been awarded an ARCS Fellowship. Already impressed with the program and research opportunities, she says, “Financial support for five years made my decision a lot easier. With my own funding, I could design my own project and tailor it to my interests rather than relying on someone else’s grant.”

Svedlund’s research area is polymer technology for medical applications, and she’s particularly interested in tissue regeneration. She explains that after a heart attack, blood flow to the area is cut off. Cells die and build scar tissue or don’t function at all. Usually, this is treated with drugs—but that’s a short-term approach. The longer-term solution, a heart transplant, has serious shortcomings: too few available hearts and the danger of organ rejection.

Svedlund is seeking a better option. She’s investigating the use of hydrogels—polymer-based scaffolding that looks like jello—to give cells signals to make new blood vessels so that blood flows to the area again. Rebuilding the vascular structure allows other cells to rebuild function.

“My polymer cells will degrade and go away, so natural tissue develops. I like the idea of using the body’s native ability to heal,” says Svedlund, who is currently in the selection phase of her project, determining the biological cues to put into the scaffolding.

Her research has already resulted in several publication credits and poster presentations. This year, she received a National Science Foundation Fellowship for her work.

“If my research goes really well, I might launch a start-up,” Svedlund says of her plans after her doctoral degree. “Otherwise, I foresee myself working for a start-up or a big biotech firm, doing research and development in polymer-based biomaterials.”

Clare Myers Saunders, Physics

Clare Myers Saunders is seeking more precise measurements of supernovae—exploding stars—and her research could help increase what is known about the accelerating expansion of the universe. Yet the third-year doctoral student’s interest in physics grew not from what might be possible to learn in the future but instead from the scientific texts of the past.

Clare Myers Saunders“I have a very unusual background for a physicist,” says Saunders, whose undergraduate curriculum at St. John’s College in Maryland consisted entirely of the Great Books. “Studying the older works, I decided I wanted to continue in physics. I took more rigorous physics courses and then applied to graduate school. At one point I took four physics classes and one math class at the same time.”

Receiving an ARCS Fellowship helped smooth her transition to the Berkeley research group headed by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Saul Perlmutter. Saunders says, “It gave me time to make sure I liked research and prove myself in my research group. I could think purely about research rather than about funding.”

Saunders is working with data on hundreds of Type 1 supernovae collected by the 88-inch telescope at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. She’s measuring the magnitude of supernovae, a way of determining their distance, and comparing the characteristics of distant targets with those of nearby explosions. This information contributes to understanding the expansion of the universe.

“We need to get finer measurements to place smaller bounds,” says Saunders. “In the past, it was enough to say that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. But there’s enough dispersion in measurement that we need to better explain how much and how fast it’s accelerating.”

Cyrus Harp, Integrative Biology

“For a very long time, I’ve been obsessed with nature,” says Cyrus Harp, a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Integrative Biology.

As a University of Texas undergraduate, Harp had an opportunity to study tropical ecology and conservation in Costa Rica. He says, “That was a transformative experience. I did an independent research project, and that clinched that I wanted to continue.”

Cyrus HarpHarp’s doctoral research at Berkeley builds on this undergraduate project. He’s pursuing in-depth study of the forest’s insects, arthropods, and vertebrates, which he calls the “consumer community.” Harp is investigating several questions: How many consumers does a given area of forest produce, and what are their identities and diversity? Are they predators or herbivores? Do patterns exist across different forest types and conditions?

Harp hypothesizes that plant resources correspond to the animal population. He’s testing this idea by studying the forests of central Texas. He’s also examining similar areas south of the Bay Area and the coniferous forests of Northern California. His goal is to estimate the different types of animals and their identities, number, and patterns across forests and climates.

Though Harp’s analysis relies in part on published data, field research is also crucial. What’s missing in the literature, he says, is data on the forest canopy. He believes the canopy may be a biological indicator, which could make it possible to measure all of the forest’s properties at once using a simple “fogging” technique.

The demands of field research are one reason Harp is grateful for his ARCS Fellowship. He says, “My research requires a lot of travel. I’ve also been able to spend my fellowship money on the foggers and other equipment for my research.”

By the time he completes his doctorate, Harp hopes to generate important conclusions about the questions he’s researching. He says, however, “I think I’ll find interesting trends no matter what. Then I’ll continue with research and communication about ecology. That’s what got me started and inspires me.”

Another ARCS Scholar, fifth-year environmental science, policy, and management doctoral student Kevin Woods, was unavailable for an interview. He is currently in Burma conducting field research related to resource politics and land seizures.

—Amy DerBedrosian