7:46 a.m., May 4, 2009----Three students in the University of Delaware's College of Engineering -- Elisa Schrank in mechanical engineering, Susan Brink in civil engineering, and Andrea Naranjo in chemical engineering -- are working on doctoral degrees with the support of prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.
Schrank is investigating muscular adaptations during the use of ankle-foot orthoses, devices used by individuals with muscular weakness in the ankle area caused by cerebral palsy and other neuromuscular injuries and disorders. Brink's research addresses infrastructure risk management in developing countries during natural disasters, with a particular focus on rural water systems. Naranjo is studying protein expression for biomedical applications.
Schrank is co-advised by Jill Higginson, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Steven Stanhope, professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.
She became interested in biomechanics and human movement at the age of 13, when she volunteered in a swim program for children with special needs. That experience, coupled with her strengths in math and science, spurred Schrank's decision to major in biomedical engineering as an undergraduate.
At the University of Virginia, where she earned her bachelor's degree in 2008, she supplemented her major courses with offerings in mechanical engineering and sports medicine. She also spent three summers as an intern in the Physical Disabilities Branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The NIH experience introduced Schrank to both the person who would become one of her graduate co-advisers and the topic that would become the focus of her doctoral research. At the time, Stanhope was director of NIH's Physical Disabilities Branch, and Schrank worked with him on the design of a novel passive-dynamic ankle-foot orthosis (PD-AFO), which is intended to enhance functional gains by replicating a patient's muscle function via a spring-like action.
“The problem,” says Schrank, “is that the design of these assistive devices is complicated by a lack of understanding as to how they interact with the complex dynamics of the human musculoskeletal system. My research will focus on modeling and simulating that interaction, with the long-term aim of optimizing PD-AFO features so that patients can achieve maximum gait function.”
UD proved to be a perfect fit for Schrank, as Stanhope joined the faculty here in 2007, and his expertise is complemented by that of Higginson, who specializes in the development of gait models and simulations. Schrank plans a career in academia, where she can teach and conduct research.
“Elisa is a very gifted student and an aspiring scholar,” Stanhope says. “As a first-year graduate student, she has demonstrated a remarkably mature desire and a wonderful aptitude for engaging colleagues in the intellectual process of 'drilling down' into the details of her learning and research efforts.”
Brink took a more circuitous route to her doctoral program than Schrank, but she is no less passionate about the work she is doing. Armed with a degree in mathematics from the University of Florida, Brink joined the Peace Corps five years ago and spent two years as a volunteer teaching math in Africa. “The time I spent in developing countries made me realize I wanted to work in development,” she says, “and infrastructure is an important piece of that.”
Its importance was brought home to her in Tanzania. “When the water stopped flowing,” she says, “my classes were canceled. Every student would get a bucket, walk down the hill to the river, and carry dirty river water back up the hill for cooking and cleaning the kitchen.”
Brink was soon to learn that the water went out frequently because the system serving the school was based on a single pipe that was not buried underground but simply laid over the road at crossings. “Even before I studied civil engineering, I could see that there was a significant problem with this strategy,” she says.
After working in Asia teaching English for the next two years, Brink entered the master's program in UD's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “My experiences in Africa had instilled in me a desire to better the quality of life in developing countries through improving the infrastructure that enables the health, economy, and social life of a community,” she says.
Advised by Rachel Davidson, associate professor, Brink is researching restoration of water systems after an earthquake. Although her current research has concentrated on Los Angeles, she has not forgotten her goal of improving life in developing countries, and she has learned that they offer unique challenges to research.
She plans to finish her master's degree in 2009 and then continue to work with Davidson on her Ph.D. Her proposed research focuses on considering the impact of disasters on developing countries.
“Significant disasters are infrequent,” Brink says, “but they can seriously impede both economic and infrastructure development when they do occur.” She intends to model the impact of earthquakes on the development of urban water systems, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of various mitigation and development strategies.
The tie between development work and disasters is an important one for Brink, and it is an area that she says has received little attention.
“A significant amount of research has focused on infrastructure and hazards within the U.S.,” she explains, “and has neglected the unique challenges faced by developing countries. In addition, much of the work doesn't adequately consider the interplay between risks and mitigation strategies in some regions because it is limited to single hazards.”
A native of Ecuador, Naranjo came to the U.S. as an exchange student at Hilton Head High School in South Carolina. She quickly became fascinated by the educational opportunities in the U.S. and decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in engineering somewhere in the States.
With the support of an American sponsor, Naranjo graduated from North Carolina State University's chemical engineering program in 2005 and spent the next two years doing research and development for Proctor and Gamble. Realizing that her long-term goal was to manage her own lab and conduct research in areas that affect human health, she decided to leave her job in industry and earn a graduate degree.
During her first year at the University of Delaware, Naranjo was supported by an IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) graduate fellowship in biotechnology. The program provided her with not only funding but also the valuable opportunity to rotate through several areas in biotechnology during that year, enabling her to fine-tune her research interest.
At the end of that year, Naranjo selected Anne Robinson, professor of chemical engineering, as her adviser. Her thesis project focuses on the development of a robust system for expression of G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) in yeast.
“I chose this project because I can apply my engineering skills to the understanding of biological processes that have a wide impact in science and ultimately people's heath,” Naranjo says.
She explains that GPCRs are the target of approximately 50 percent of existing drugs. “Malfunctioning, deregulation, or upregulation of various GPCRs has been linked to multiple diseases,” she says. “Currently, there are high-resolution crystal structures available for less than one percent of all GPCRs. Obtaining the crystal structures of GPCRs and achieving a better understanding of GPCR transcription, translation, folding, and trafficking will eventually lead to the design of more efficient drugs that target GPCRs.”
Naranjo has not forgotten that her move to the U.S. was facilitated by a generous sponsor, and she is determined to give back to others. According to Robinson, Naranjo was the primary driver behind the development of a mentoring program at UD for first-year chemical engineering graduate students.
“I believe the program really has helped the students adjust to the challenges of graduate life,” Robinson says. “Andrea is a bright, enthusiastic, thoughtful student who is likely to contribute in many areas of science as well as to the community.”
The NSF Graduate Student Fellowship Program is aimed at ensuring the vitality of the human resource base of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in the United States and reinforcing its diversity. The competitive fellowships provide three years of support for graduate study leading to research-based master's or doctoral degrees.
In addition to Schrank, Brink, and Naranjo, two UD undergraduate students -- Jeffrey Bosco and Zachary Ulissi, both chemical engineering majors -- have been selected to receive NSF grad fellowships.
Bosco plans to attend the California Institute of Technology to begin his doctoral studies in fall 2009. Ulissi, who also won a similar fellowship from the Department of Energy (DOE), will use the NSF fellowship to earn a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Mathematics at Cambridge University. He will then begin working toward a Ph.D. at Caltech the following year supported by the DOE fellowship.
Article by Diane Kukich
Photo by Doug Baker