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Engineering Vols Earn NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Two Engineering Vols—one current and one recently graduated—earned prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awards for 2021.

Jackson Spurling (materials science) and Erica Waters (mechanical engineering) will each receive a $34,000 annual stipend for three years, $12,000 toward tuition and fees, and increased chances to take part in international research as well as other benefits as they begin their graduate studies.

Spurling plans to pursue his PhD in materials science and engineering at Pennsylvania State University. Waters also plans to pursue her PhD, but has not yet decided on a university.

“We’re incredibly proud of Erica and Jackson for earning these national-level fellowships,” said Interim Dean Matthew Mench. “They exemplify the hard work that our students put toward success in their academic experience and research. This type of recognition also speaks to the dedication and guidance of their faculty mentors.”

Jackson Spurling

Jackson Spurling

Spurling, a native of Norris, Tennessee, performs research across a wide range of materials and applications, linked by advanced technologies for characterization.

“I use electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and other tools to understand how the structure of materials impacts their properties,” he explained. “In graduate school, I plan on researching high-entropy oxide materials. I will build on my experience from my undergraduate career and leverage advanced characterization techniques in exploring these novel materials.”

In nominating Spurling for the award, Associate Professor Claudia Rawn detailed his experience and academic excellence from his beginnings in a pre-college materials science camp through his undergraduate career.

“He is the student that makes teaching a rewarding activity and it is a pleasure having him in class,” she said. “He is also a standout for his positive attitude and his engagement with various communities both professionally and community oriented.”

“Jackson has been involved in undergraduate research opportunities from the day he committed to becoming an Engineering Vol,” said Veerle Keppens, Chancellor’s Professor and department head. “His dedication is paying off in spades, and I’m happy to see his accomplishments getting national recognition.”

“I appreciate all that my faculty and research advisors have done to mentor, encourage, and support me, both personally and professionally,” said Spurling.

Erica Waters

Erica Waters

Waters, of Maryville, Tennessee, focused her undergraduate research on establishing a relationship between kinematic data of upper-extremity reaching and task-specific self-efficacy.

“The eventual goal of this research is to improve post-stroke patient monitoring in the ambient environment and reduce harmful compensatory strategies such as learned nonuse of a paretic limb,” she explained. “I hope to apply the fellowship towards researching rehabilitation and assistive robotics to help individuals with disabilities.”

Assistant Professor Eric Espinoza-Wade (now at California Polytechnic State University) advised Waters from her first year at the college.

“His mentorship has been critical to my development as a researcher,” she said. “Associate Professor Chad Duty has also supported me as the faculty sponsor of Life Without Limits, a student organization that facilitates collaborative student design of 3D-printed assistive devices.”

“Erica entered UT with an interest in mechanical engineering,” said Espinoza-Wade. “She had an active interest in becoming involved with a topic that she found dear: using technology to improve quality of life. She has also given back to the community, through her service as founding member and vice president of the Life Without Limits Club, a Society of Women Engineers member, a FUTURE Program Peer mentor, and as an active participant in the Tennessee Tutoring Corps (Boys and Girls Club).”

Waters also credits Courtney Faber, lecturer and research assistant professor in the Cook Grand Challenge Honors Program, for her encouragement and helpful to me in writing my GRFP application.

“I am incredibly thankful to all of the faculty who have supported me at UT,” she said. “Without them this achievement would not have been possible.”

“We are proud of students’ recent success in winning prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowships during the past few years,” said Professor Kivanc Ekici, interim department head for the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering. “Each year we see more of our students getting involved in world-class research, which helps them become well-rounded engineers.”

The NSF GRFP, launched in 1952, is the oldest fellowship program in the nation devoted to supporting outstanding graduate students in STEM disciplines. Some of its participants have gone on to become Nobel Laureates, government leaders, or titans of commerce, such as Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

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