National Science Foundation - The University of Tulsa

National Science Foundation

Students and alumni awarded highly competitive graduate studies fellowships

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) administers some of STEM’s most prestigious awards. These fellowships comprise a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees. Because of this, the program is highly selective (in 2020, 13,000 people applied but only 2,000 received funding). This year, five University of Tulsa students received GRFP fellowships – clearly, their futures are shining bright.

Lanie McKinney

Woman with blonde hair and a blazer smiling outside
Lanie McKinney

TU Student Association vice president and aspiring plasma physicist Lanie McKinney (Class of 2022) will be putting her fellowship to good use at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. There, she will work under Assistant Professor Carmen Guerra-Garcia in the Aerospace Plasma Group.

McKinney is thrilled to have been chosen from such a densely packed field of candidates. With her double major in physics and applied mathematics and her minor in computer science, McKinney is particularly interested in applications of plasma physics. “Plasma is the most common state of ordinary matter in the universe. Stars are composed of plasma and lightning strikes create plasma,” explained McKinney. “Plasma is essentially an ionized or charged gas, which gives it unique properties, such as being electrically conductive, and its motion is partially governed by collective and externally applied electromagnetic fields.” It is this component, along with plasma’s wide-ranging applications in technology, including nuclear fusion, space propulsion, space physics and semiconductor manufacturing, that McKinney hopes to address in her graduate research.

As she reflected on her TU years, McKinney emphasized the encouragement she has received from Brett McKinney (no relation), a professor of computer science and bioinformatics. McKinney was thrilled to learn that Lanie’s hard work had been rewarded so generously, noting the privilege he felt to be a part of her academic journey through the theoretical physics research they worked on together. “Lanie adds so much to the university, and she is highly deserving of this honor,” stated McKinney. “I am excited to watch her career develop at MIT and beyond.”

Emily Cook

Woman in a blue shirt sitting in front of flowers and smiling for the picture
Emily Cook

Biochemistry and math major Emily Cook (Class of 2022) will be attending the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign next fall to pursue a doctorate in chemistry. With her NSF GRFP fellowship in hand, Cook plans on specializing in materials chemistry, a process that involves synthesizing and characterizing materials for biological applications.

“At TU, I have done research on the interaction of amino acids on an atomically thin silver layer on a gold surface using electrochemical scanning tunneling microscopy,” Cook noted. “When I’m in graduate school, I would like to research nanoparticle synthesis and functionalization for biosensing or using biomolecules to create materials with useful properties like self-healing capabilities.”

Cook credits Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Erin Iski as a major influence in her development as a scientist over the past four years. “Emily has been an outstanding member of my research lab,” said Iski. “In the time we have worked together, she has not only helped to collect publishable data, but has also helped to write two peer-reviewed journal articles, mentored students, acted as lab manager for two years and received numerous awards at international conferences.” Iski knew when she first met Cook that she was extremely capable and bright, and feels gratified seeing her recognized for her work and future career goals. “I am excited to see where her future leads,” Iski stated; “no doubt it will be amazing.”

Olivia Pletcher

Woman in a green shirt with short hair smiling
Olivia Pletcher

Olivia Pletcher is currently working toward a Ph.D. in TU’s Department of Biological Sciences as a member of the Brown Lab. As a student in the field of ecology, Pletcher studies the reproductive success of cliff swallows. A member of the Cliff Swallow Project, Pletcher’s interest revolves around the fluctuating selection of group size among these birds.

“I go to western Nebraska every summer and I monitor about 40-50 colonies, which can contain anywhere from one to over 2,000 nests,” reported Pletcher. Her observations allow her to keep track of nestling survival, reproductive success and ectoparasite loads of nests throughout the summer. “My goal is to compare the reproductive success of cliff swallows across different sized colonies throughout several years.”

Man and woman smiling for the camera outside in the wilderness
Pletcher and Brown

While she was still an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Pletcher was hired on as a research assistant at TU by Professor of Biological Science Charles Brown, whom she helped with his long-term fieldwork on cliff swallows. At TU, Brown is now supervising Pletcher’s doctoral studies. “Olivia loves to research, and she already has more field experience than many graduate students,” said Brown. “I expect her to have many important research findings by the time she finishes graduate school. I congratulate Olivia on an impressive research career to date, and believe the sky is the limit for her.”

Maddie Pickett

Woman with short blond hair and gold earrings smiling for a headshot
Maddie Pickett

TU alumna Maddie Pickett (BS ‘20), now a student in the doctoral program in biomedical engineering at The University of Texas-Austin, also received NSF GRFP funding. Pickett’s program takes an average of 5.5 years to complete and requires both coursework and work under an advisor. At UT-Austin, Picket is a member of The Parekh Lab, which uses a variety of microscopy methods, among them coherent Raman and nonlinear fluorescence, to study fundamental processes in soft matter systems from force transduction in cells and materials to subtle biochemical modifications in metabolic disorders. “My research aims to use a dynamic in vitro cell culture model and advanced label-free, nonlinear microscopy to evaluate the impact of extracellular matrix orientation and density on postpartum breast cancer cellular metabolism,” explained Pickett.

One of the most important benefits of the fellowship for Pickett is the autonomy it will provide for her as a researcher. Because the fellowship comes with a stipend, Pickett is relieved knowing she will not have to rely on external sources of funding for the rest of her doctoral studies. She also noted the networking benefits of the award for allowing her to connect with other recipients and travel far and wide to participate in important conferences.

Pickett credits her undergraduate research mentor and Wellspring Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Gabriel LeBlanc with having contributed a great deal to her scholarly success. For his part, LeBlanc noted the various leadership roles, including the SA presidency, that Pickett took on outside of the rigorous curriculum in the chemistry and biochemistry department. “If the NSF GRFP fellowship represents one of the most prestigious awards that a graduate student can earn,” stated LeBlanc, “then Maddie is a stellar example of the type of researcher that the fellowship is meant to support. I am eager to see the products of her research over the next few years!

Samuel Taylor

Man with glasses in a collared shirt posing for a headshot
Samuel Taylor

Samuel Taylor (BS ’20) will begin doctoral studies in cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, in the fall. Currently working as a research specialist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR), Taylor received his degrees from TU in computer science and mathematics with a minor in psychology in 2020. While at TU, Taylor’s research involved mission-planning and path-planning systems for unmanned aerial vehicles in adversarial, multi-agent environments: “In brief,” said Taylor, “artificial decision-making systems for drones.” Taylor also carried out a summer research internship, jointly with research at TU and LIBR, that served as the basis for his passion for the cognitive sciences.

His current research at LIBR involves the design and study of computational models of decision-making as they pertain to better phenotyping of neuropsychiatric disorders. “I study the decision-making processes of people with anxiety, depression or substance use disorders to determine if there are significant, quantifiable differences in those populations from populations without those disorders. This may provide better treatment targets and help the field move towards individualized diagnoses, alongside an improved understanding of the dynamics underlying cognition generally.”

“In many ways,” said Taylor, “my research interests have become a fusion of what I am currently working on at LIBR and what I previously worked on at TU.” Taylor’s fellowship will aid his research at UC San Diego involving the computational and mathematical modeling of mental processes and neural signals at the intersection of computer science, psychology, neuroscience and mathematics: “I am particularly focused on probabilistic models of human decision-making, specifically the relationship between decision-making algorithms in artificial intelligence and decision-making processes in humans.”

Hazel Rogers Associate Professor of Media Studies Ben Peters recalls Taylor’s studious qualities as top tier: “In over 15 years of teaching high-octane students around the world, I would rank Samuel as one of the most natively philosophically and naturally broadminded interlocutors on science and technology as a humane question.” Taylor entered Peter’s Honors course years ago, and since then, Peters remarked, he has been “fortunate to be regularly dazzled and lifted by Samuel’s quiet, brilliant ways.”

Do you have a research interest in need of funding? Then check out the external funding opportunities offered by The University of Tulsa Graduate School!

Computer science professor receives prestigious NSF CAREER award

woman with dark hair and a pink blouse standing in front of a large computer screen
Assistant Professor of Computer Science Sandeep Kuttal

The past few years have seen exponential growth in many virtual assistant technologies. Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are all household names. However, no such virtual assistant technology exists for programming. Assistant Professor of Computer Science Sandeep Kuttal is leading the way in the field of software engineering by creating such a virtual assistant for programmers.

Recently, the National Science Foundation granted Kuttal a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award to support her project Designing an Interactive Partner to Support Pair Programming. Kuttal’s CAREER award follows hard on the heels of her recent Young Investigator Research from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Chairperson of Computer Science John Hale expressed his pride in Kuttal’s work and her latest achievement: “These awards are testament to both the ground-breaking research happening in The University of Tulsa’s Tandy School of Computer Science and to the quality of our faculty. They are well-deserved by Dr. Kuttal and continue a string of success for her and for our department.”

Dissolving barriers between humans and computers

Kuttal will focus her CAREER-supported research on the creation of Alexa-like programming assistants that will offer many new insights into how programming is learned and carried out. Over the last several years, Kuttal has analyzed and expanded upon ideas from the areas of human-computer interaction, software engineering and artificial intelligence to address the idea that human programmers and machine intelligences engage in immersive and natural interactions centered around programming activities. This means that using Kuttal’s proposed technology could break down barriers between researchers and mechanical subjects that were never thought possible.

One of the most compelling aspects of Kuttal’s research is how she has taken into account gender bias and devised an innovative approach to ensure that the agent is sensitive to female programmers and students. While helping attract and retain females and members of underrepresented groups in computer science programs in high schools and universities, Kuttal hopes that her work on developing these programming partners may bring about massive transformations in software development as well as in the teaching and learning of programming.

Are you interested in computer programming and its application to an array of enterprises? Check out TU’s high-quality undergraduate opportunities that lead to employment success.


Better lighting for all

Have you ever shuddered at the tinny quality of light-emitting diodes (LEDs)? Despite their harsh and unflattering glare, you likely nevertheless screw them into your lamps because you know they last a lot longer and use far less energy than conventional incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes. If Peifen Zhu has her way, however, one day we might all be happily basking in the glow of LED lamplight that is calm, cool and doesn’t make your skin crawl.

physics professor Peifen Zhu in her lab with research equipment
Professor Peifen Zhu

Zhu is an assistant professor of physics and engineering physics at The University of Tulsa. Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded to Zhu a five-year Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant to support her investigation of lead-free pseudohalide/halide perovskites for next-generation white LEDs. Metal halide perovskites, she explained, are promising semiconductor materials for potential application in optoelectronic devices – that is, devices that either emit or detect light.

“LED technology based on metal halide perovskites is still in its early stage,” noted Zhu. “Two of the main barriers to its practical applications are problems with stability and the common inclusion of lead. Continued innovation and breakthroughs are needed to achieve LED’s full potential.”

computer monitors, micro-drilling equipment and other tools in Professor Zhu's lab
Micro-drilling equipment

The objective of Zhu’s research on solid-state lighting technology is to develop highly efficient, environmentally friendly luminescent materials by using earth-abundant elements (e.g., carbon, nitrogen, oxygen) and low-cost, large-scale methods to replace the yellow phosphors that make conventional LEDs cast such unpleasant light. “My hope,” Zhu said, “is that this theoretical and experimental work will, ultimately, boost the widespread adoption of white LEDs that have superior color quality and, thereby, reduce our energy consumption.”

Training future scientists

Built into Zhu’s research program is educational training for undergraduate and graduate TU students in physics, material science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. Currently, four graduate students and one undergraduate student are collaborating with Zhu her Lab for Emerging Materials and Devices. In fact, Zhu and her students have been working on the LED project since before the NSF grant. The team has been nothing if not prolific, and their findings have been published in several prestigious journals, including Advanced Optical Materials, ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, Nano Research, Journal of Colloid and Interface Science, Optics Express and Journal of Physical Chemistry.

computer monitor measuring LED
LED measurement

“I have been working with Professor Zhu since June 2017,” said Gopi Adhikari, a doctoral candidate in physics at TU. “Dr. Zhu has been instrumental in my development as a scientist. She is dynamic, enthusiastic and always ready to help students without hesitation as both a teacher and research mentor. Two of the things that stand out for me particularly strongly are Dr. Zhu’s respect for each student and her passion for their success. I have learned so much from her and I am grateful to be involved in the research she is carrying out.”

One of the novel aspects of Zhu’s program is that it will involve students from local middle and secondary schools. “I plan to invite budding scientists to conduct experimental work at TU during the summer,” noted Zhu, “thereby giving them hands-on experience in photonic research methodologies before they ever set foot at university.”

In fact, Zhu has some history mentoring such students. During the summers of 2017 and 2018, a high school student named William Wang undertook experimental work in her lab. Not only did this lead to scholarly publications and presentations, but Wang also won several national and international competitions, including the Google Science Fair. Today, he is an undergraduate student at Stanford University.

Does research in the most fundamental of the sciences interest you? If so, learn more about the pathways and opportunities offered by TU’s Department of Physics and Engineering Physics.



TU Law faculty member part of team awarded major NSF grant

The University of Tulsa College of Law’s Warigia Bowman is a widely published expert on public policy, infrastructure, water and energy. Bowman is, therefore, a natural fit for the team of 34 interdisciplinary researchers recently awarded a $20 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, administered by the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

The focus of this five-year award is the development and testing of science-based solutions for complex problems at the intersection of land use, water availability and infrastructure in Oklahoma. Bowman is a sub-principal investigator and the only member from TU. She is also the College of Law’s first recipient of an NSF grant.

Professor Warigia Bowman seated at a library table with a book and a laptop computer
Professor Warigia Bowman

“On behalf of the entire TU Law community, I commend Warigia Bowman for contributing to this vital research endeavor,” said Dean Lyn Entzeroth. “She brings valuable expertise in both public policy and groundwater, as well as an understanding of the regulatory issues facing both water and renewable energy to the grant team.”

At the intersection of science and society

“Professor Bowman has academic expertise concerning the interface between science and society, and practical background in stakeholder participation and engagement,” remarked Hank Jenkins-Smith, a co-lead researcher on the grant and a public policy professor at the University of Oklahoma. “Both of these will be at the heart of the EPSCoR project. We are very pleased that she has agreed to be a part of our research team.”

“This project is novel in both its design and vision,” explained Bowman. “It creates a social science-led, multidisciplinary collaboration among social, physical, biological, engineering and computational scientists that aims to provide socially sustainable solutions to emerging problems caused, in part, by changing weather patterns, gaps in sustainable energy infrastructure and declining water supplies.”

Wide-ranging goals

Joining Bowman on this NSF-funded project are researchers from Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma, Southwestern Oklahoma State University, Langston University, East Central University and the Noble Research Institute. The group anticipates accomplishing several objectives:

  • Education and workplace development as well as the creation of a resilience model that can guide Oklahoma stakeholders
  • Broadening of participation in STEM by women, underrepresented minorities, persons with disabilities and first-generation college students
  • Enhanced STEM training for K-12 teachers as well as non-traditional STEM educators, including 4-H and Oklahoma museums
  • Enhancements in K-12 student STEM education, such as a Native American student STEM competition and teacher conference, and the creation of a Tinkerfest at the Science Museum of Oklahoma
  • Expansion of Oklahoma’s Citizen Science Network
  • Support for higher education faculty and students involved in STEM

Bowman’s participation on the grant will also contribute to her personal research agenda. In addition, it will support training of her graduate research assistants at TU Law on projects focusing on risks posed by declines in state groundwater storage. Bowman and her research assistants also plan to study threats and opportunities posed by renewable energy to Oklahoma communities.

Earning your JD at TU Law will bring you in contact with faculty members at the forefront of their fields, such as Warigia Bowman, who are both excellent teachers as well as scholars. Learn about this vibrant, welcoming community.

TU’s Benjamin James and Jordan Sosa receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Two students from The University of Tulsa have been awarded Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation. TU’s 2019 recipients are Jordan Sosa, an engineering physics senior from Florissant, Missouri, and Benjamin James, a computer science senior, from St. Louis, Missouri.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited institutions in the United States. Fellows receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 education allowance for tuition and fees. Other benefits include opportunities for international research and professional development and the option to conduct research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education.

Jordan Sosa

jordan sosaSosa currently focuses on materials research and metallic materials as a student in the TU Department of Mechanical Engineering. As a TU undergraduate, Sosa has received valuable experience in physics, materials science and engineering as a visiting researcher at West Virginia University, Oklahoma State University-Tulsa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to his academic and research agenda, Sosa has served in leadership roles for TU’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Society of Physics Students, attended the National Institute for Leadership Advancement and helped host a Noche de Ciencias, or “Night of Sciences” community event that invited local public school children to learn about STEM degrees.

“These experiences have instilled a stronger desire in me to pursue a higher degree so I can develop a stronger understanding of STEM and provide others with access to that education,” he said.

He plans to earn a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in materials science and engineering in research fields of energy storage and eventually work in a laboratory or the research and development department of a materials technology company.

Benjamin James

benjamin jamesJames has performed research in the bioinformatics subfield computational genomics, which emphasizes the use of computational and statistical techniques such as algorithms and machine learning/artificial intelligence to solve biological problems.

“At TU, under the mentorship of Dr. Hani Girgis, I created intelligent and adaptive software systems to compare and cluster nucleotide sequences, especially long, genome-length sequences, as a method of in silico data analysis for computational biologists,” James said.

The clustering algorithm currently is used by biologists in multiple pipelines, including groups of third-generation sequencing reads and grouping of microbial communities. James plans to attend graduate school at MIT and work independently on bioinformatics research projects that can have a positive impact on society.