Three Materials Science Graduate Students Receive NSF Elite Fellowships | Penn State University

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. Three PhD students in Materials Science and Engineering—representing six in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences—are among 21 new recipients of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF) program for the Academy 2022-23 years.

They are Aiden Ross, Eric Fortun, and Maria Rochus.

Aiden Ross’ research focuses on ferroelectric nanomaterials and is exploring ways to develop new or improved applications. Ross, who works from the Institute for Materials Research, uses theoretical and computer simulations to explore how a material’s shape, surface and crystal structure can affect its properties.

He said that understanding this interaction is critical to taking advantage of the unique properties that appear in nanostructures to produce new materials with unique properties. Engineering new materials could play a major role in targeted on-demand drug delivery, high-density dielectric energy storage, piezoelectric nanogenerators, and next-generation solid-state refrigerants.

“The most exciting thing about my research is getting the chance to pursue my curiosity,” Ross said. “Many strange and exciting phenomena can occur, and I am always interested in finding and testing new explanations. There are essentially an unlimited number of opportunities within computational material research to pursue 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 3D structures such as nanotubes, multilayers, and superlattices. He always wants to encourage greater representation in STEM fields by communicating science outside of academic journals.

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

“For example, we can put a 1-millimeter defect in the center of the sample and compare it to a 2-millimeter defect, and see how vulnerable the material is to the defect,” Furton said. Then we run the simulations, we see how well the simulations fit the experiments, and those discrepancies help us improve those models.

Furton said he’s excited about the research because it has the potential to make lightweight, bearing structures. Before that, he said, we have to understand how defects affect the mechanical properties of a material.

Furton said GRFP is giving him the funding he needs to continue the research he’s excited about. His goal is to delve deeper into research and help advance the field while understanding the science behind the discoveries.

Rochus investigates how ions move across ion-conducting polymer membranes. This technology is used in renewable energy applications such as batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.

Rochu said the fellowship gives her more flexibility in deciding the avenues she wants her research to go. It gives her time to explore the more pressing research questions she wants answered.

She is passionate about working at the forefront of exploration as the world turns to fuels from sustainable sources. She is also fascinated by how the structural relationship of these materials can be manipulated to improve performance.

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

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