Four ChE Graduate Students Receive Major Fellowships

(Clockwise from top right) George Degen, Audra DeStefano, Patrick Leggieri, Candice Swift
Saturday, May 9, 2020

George Degen, Audra DeStefano, Patrick Leggieri, and Candice Swift, graduate students in UC Santa Barbara’s Chemical Engineering Department, have received major fellowships through either the university’s continuing graduate student fellowship competition or the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) program. The fellowships cover their in-state tuitions and fees, provide stipends, and allow students to focus on their research and complete their doctorates.

DeStefano received a prestigious National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship, a highly competitive prize funded by the Department of Defense. The program seeks to increase the number of scientists and engineers trained in fields of military importance. The fellowships last for up to three years, covering full tuition and mandatory fees, as well as providing an annual stipend of $38,400 and up to $1,200 a year in medical insurance.

“Receiving this fellowship is very exciting and motivating,” said DeStefano, who is co-advised by chemical engineering professor Song-I Han and Rachel Segalman, professor and chair of chemical engineering. “I look forward to the relationships and opportunities that may arise from participating in the NDSEG program.”

DeStefano attributes her growth and success since arriving at UCSB to relationships with her peers and mentors, especially the guidance and examples set by her co-advisors.

“They both pour a lot of heart and soul into their research groups and that shows in the support and opportunities that we receive. I've especially appreciated their confidence in my ability to take on new challenges and their patience as I work through new concepts,” she said. “I hope that this fellowship also benefits my research groups by letting us use more grant funding in the labs.”

DeStefano’s research focuses on the design of material surfaces to control the way that water and molecules dissolved in water interact with that surface. She uses sequence-defined polymers as a platform for studying the effects of small changes in chemical patterning on local water behavior. Her research is of particular interest to the Office of Naval Research, which along with the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Army Research Office select fellowship recipients.  

“Controlling water behavior at material interfaces could be applied to antifouling coatings that reduce ship fuel consumption and incorporated into water filtration membrane coatings that are used in on-site water purification modules,” said DeStefano, who is a student leader with the Center for Materials for Water and Energy Systems (M-WET), a research collaboration between UCSB, University of Texas at Austin, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The center’s mission is to develop better water purification methods with next-generation membranes.

The NDSEG program has awarded more than 4,000 fellowships and received more than 60,000 applications since its creation in 1989.

Degen received the University’s President’s Dissertation Year Fellowship, which provides a $24,000 stipend, $500 for research, plus payment of in-state tuition and campus health insurance.

“I am proud to receive this fellowship,” said Degen, a fifth-year graduate student, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with a minor in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University. “It will enable me to complete the research projects I have been pursuing throughout my graduate career.”

Degen’s research focuses on the adhesion of marine mussel-inspired materials and the mechanical properties of thin hydrogel films.

“Adhesion is important in many contexts!” said Degen, whose advisors at UCSB include the late Jacob Israelachvili and his current co-advisors, professors Joan-Emma Shea and Angela Pitenis. “I hope that by contributing to a better understanding of mussel-inspired wet adhesion I can help guide the design of improved medical adhesives. I’m also excited about my hydrogel research, which relates to the function of cartilage in the body and has applications for biomedical devices and drug delivery.”

Previous fellowships received by Degen include the Chemical Engineering Department’s Schlinger Fellowship, CSP Technologies Teacher-Scholar Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship.

Upon completion of his doctoral degree, Degen plans to conduct postdoctoral research in the field of soft matter, then launch a career in academia and start his own research lab.

Swift, like Degen, is nearing the completion of her PhD studies at UCSB. The fifth-year graduate student received the university’s Graduate Division Dissertation Fellowship. The award is intended to free the recipient from non-academic employment obligations by providing a $7,5000 stipend, plus payment of in-state tuition and university health insurance for one quarter.

“This fellowship is crucial to the completion of my PhD and will support me during the final stages of preparing my dissertation and defense,” said Swift, who previously received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and the UCSB Chemical Engineering Department’s Connie Frank Fellowship.

Advised by associate professor Michelle O’Malley, Swift’s research focuses on the discovery of novel antibiotics from the bacteria and fungi that live inside the stomachs of large herbivores, such as cows and sheep.  

“The rumen microbiome is almost completely unexplored in this area of research, and the discovery of novel antibiotics is a pressing need for society due to the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” said Swift, who plans to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship after completing her PhD.

Leggieri, who is also a member of O’Malley’s research group, received UCSB’s Graduate Research Mentorship Program Fellowship. The fellowship’s goal is to increase the number of students who contribute to the diversity mission of the university and show promise as future faculty.

“It’s important to me to show others that many different paths to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and higher education exist, even if someone has a background with zero connections to academia,” said Leggieri, who will receive a $24,000 stipend, plus have his tuition and campus health insurance paid by the fellowship. “Because of my background, I prioritize mentorship and helping guide younger students to a career in STEM. I see this fellowship as a sign that UCSB shares these values, and it does an excellent job of facilitating mentorship pairs between graduate and undergraduate students.”

Leggieri’s research leverages modeling and experimental approaches to engineer robust anaerobic microbes for renewable fuels and materials. The O’Malley lab specializes in isolating and characterizing microbes found in the guts of herbivores that eat plants that contain lignocellulose.

“The microbes are nature’s most potent lignocellulose degraders, especially when they work together in communities. They may enable the conversion of biomass or plant material to things like pharmaceuticals, commodities, and fuels,” explained Leggieri, who previously received the Tau Beta Pi Fellowship, and the Goldwater and Tau Beta Pi scholarships. “Because there are thousands of different factors that influence lignocellulose conversion, I’m developing computational models to explore this space and design consortia with the accelerated lignocellulose degradation properties we want to see experimentally.”

Leggieri, a second-year graduate student, says he’s still considering all career options after graduate school, from startups and industry, to academia or national labs.

“Through the seminars and networking, the Chemical Engineering Department has made me aware of all of my career options and is preparing me to succeed in whichever direction I eventually choose,” said Leggieri, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Lafayette College.

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