Forty graduate students honored with prestigious University awards

Students lauded for academic, research, teaching and outreach accomplishments
Award winners
Credit: Jillian Wesner / Penn State Graduate School, Yvonne Harhigh / Penn State Harrisburg, Penn State Hershey, Eberly College of Science, Bertrand Mahirwe Ishimwe / Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, provided

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Forty Penn State graduate students were named recipients of Penn State’s most prestigious annual graduate student recognition awards, administered by the Graduate School in collaboration with several Penn State units. The awards recognize and celebrate graduate students excelling in teaching, research and service, and other academic pursuits. 

“The students award recipients are phenomenal, and it’s clear that their efforts are furthering Penn State’s educational, research, and outreach mission,” said Levon T. Esters, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School. “These students represent some of our most talented and impactful graduate students, and I’m proud to help support them and their extraordinary accomplishments.” 

The awards and recipients include: 

Intercollege Graduate Student Outreach Achievement Award 

Ana V. Leon-Apodaca

Ana V. Leon-Apodaca is a bioinformatics and genomics doctoral candidate who helped establish DNA Day at Penn State, the Pennsylvania chapter of National DNA Day, an initiative that commemorates the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA and the completion of the Human Genome Project. As a native Spanish speaker, she has focused on breaking down language barriers to make science more inclusive by bringing science outreach opportunities to young English language learners from Hispanic and Latino communities. In her role as vice president and science aAmbassador for DNA Day at Penn State, she has demystified scientists and science careers, and empowered students to become curious about science-related topics and careers in STEM.  

One nominator lauded her dedication by saying Leon-Apodaca “clearly sees science outreach work as an inherent duty for any scientist.” 

Ardeth and Norman Frisbey International Student Award 

Olanrewaju Shittu

Olanrewaju Shittu is a doctoral candidate in plant pathology with a dual title in international agriculture and development. His interest in global food security has made him establish partnership with both the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. His research focuses on the management of Fusarium head blight disease in wheat using disease forecasting models to inform efficient fungicides use that contribute to sustainable agricultural practices. His fungicide research was critical in the wake of addressing a Fusarium head blight disease outbreak in 2022 and 2023 in Ethiopia, and he provided crucial cultural management practices to help farmers navigate this challenge, at a time when no management practices were in place. 

In addition to conducting international research, Shittu is highly active in Penn State’s international student community, serving as treasurer of the International Agricultural and Development student organization and a member of the Pan African Professional Alliance. He also co-authored a textbook chapter on “Government and the politics of Agriculture: An International comparison.” 

One nominator lauded his multifaceted contributions, “Not only is Olanrewaju an excellent student and role model, but he has been a leader on campus, in the community, and around the world!” 

Graduate Student Service Award 

Tanveer Ahmed

Tanveer Ahmed has held numerous extracurricular leadership roles in addition to pursuing his doctoral degree in civil and environmental engineering. As president of the Bangladesh Student Association, he led a diverse group of 200-plus students to foster an inclusive environment and promote cultural exchange and unity. As student engagement committee chair of the Graduate and Professional Student Association, he organized events such as Military Appreciation Week and a Talent, Hobbies and Identities showcase. As president of Penn State’s student chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, he facilitated workshops, collaborated with Penn State Transportation on a master bike plan, and led Penn State’s Traffic Bowl team to being named regional champions of this international event. In addition to his leadership roles, Ahmed has advocated for the needs and concerns of graduate students on campus at the departmental, college and University level. In addition to his leadership roles, Ahmed has advocated for the needs and concerns of graduate students on campus at the departmental, college and University level. 

His leadership was recognized with several accolades including the Leopard Family Eclipse Award for Student Leadership and Service and the Student Leadership Scholarship from Penn State.  

An effective and impactful researcher, Ahmed has been first author on seven peer-reviewed papers and received a University Graduate Fellowship and the James E. Marley Graduate Fellowship in Engineering.  

A nominator lauded his “exceptional leadership and commitment to the university community.” 

Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award

Benton Bickerton  

Benton Bickerton is a third-year doctoral student in chemistry whose passion for chemistry helps create an exciting learning environment for students. He has taught organic lecture and laboratory courses where he emphasizes group discussions and welcomes all questions. He recognizes that each student learns differently, so when a student asks a question, he tailors his response to help the student reach a new level of understanding. Additionally, Bickerton focuses on helping students bridge the gap between fundamental concepts and real-world applications, which is important for students to understand that what they learn in the classroom has value in research and industry. Students are receptive to Bickerton’s approach and regularly comment about his positive attitude and engaging approach to learning.  

Bickerton has become known in his department as a “great and effective teacher, resourceful, dependable, intelligent, always smiling, funny, and kind,” according to a nominator. One faculty nominator wrote that Bickerton is “committed to learning and distilling his passion for chemistry and teaching to his students both in the undergraduate curriculum and research laboratory.”  

One student commented that he is “the best TA [teaching assistant] I’ve ever had” and that he “made chemistry lab always so fun, nonstressful, and interesting.” 

Allison Carothers  

Allison Carothers is a doctoral candidate in integrative and biomedical physiology whose approach to teaching focuses on active learning and fostering intrinsic motivation while continually demonstrating empathy and enthusiasm in the classroom. While teaching several physiology and anatomy lab courses, she used innovative techniques such as having students teach her course material. In an animal physiology course for which one component focused on reproductive processes, she introduced a new concept. In a reproductive physiology course, after students had learned about reproduction in domestic species, she challenged students to research the reproductive physiology of a non-domestic or wild species and teach their findings to the class. To paraphrase one nominator, learning about variation in the animal world helps to understand the broader population better.  

Students regularly praised her ability to make course material interesting and engaging, with one saying, “It didn’t feel like the standard classroom but more like a fun educational club.” Another said, “Allison made me fall in love with learning once more.”  

A faculty nominator said Carothers “embodies the true nature of the teacher-scientist where she brings her wide-ranging experiences in research into the classroom to complement her undergraduate and graduate education and outreach efforts.” 

Andrew Domzal

Andrew Domzal is a doctoral candidate in philosophy who has taught eight separate philosophy courses on topics ranging from film and philosophy to existentialism to environmental philosophy. He employs a variety of pedagogical approaches to keep his students engaged such as online discussion boards and connecting course materials with music, videos, and movies to show that philosophy is relevant to everyday life. He also creates a welcoming environment and shows that all perspectives students bring are valid parts of the discussion, and students regularly commented that he helped them feel that they weren’t being judged, which helped to foster a deeper classroom discussion.  

What’s more, Domzal was able to regularly show the value of philosophy to students from across the University. A Geography major actively sought to take more of his classes because, she said, “through Andrew’s course, I strengthened my ability to actively interrogate the world around me.” A theater student commented, “I was able to bring an existentialist lens to all the work I did in the theater that year, from sound designing 'Rent' to writing my own musical.” 

Carolin Jolitz 

Carolin Jolitz is a doctoral candidate in German with a dual-title applied linguistics and language science major, and her dissertation research addresses the gap between research and teaching practices in instructed second language acquisition, with a particular focus on technology-based pronunciation instruction. As the instructor of record, she has taught several German classes at various levels, and in each of them, she creates a safe and welcoming environment, uses authentic materials, such as videos, newspapers, and German literature, and highlights German culture events, to prepare students to communicate in real-world situations. Nearly all her students praised her enthusiasm and effectiveness as a teacher.  

Beyond teaching typical German language classes, Jolitz developed and taught a Swiss German language and culture class for an embedded study abroad course for global biotech entrepreneurship that focused on sustainability in Switzerland. Despite being mostly science majors, students in that course commented that her engaging active learning approaches helped them to feel confident in their ability to speak and engage with native speakers in Switzerland. Her passion inspired and encouraged her students, both within the classroom and abroad.  

One faculty nominator commented that not only did Jolitz effectively teach students, but that her above and beyond efforts would have a lasting impact on the department. Another commented, “She is one of the most outstanding teachers we have had in our program in the last decade.” 

Timothy D. Smith  

Timothy D. Smith is a doctoral candidate in American studies at Penn State Harrisburg who served as instructor of record for one American studies course and three history courses. He builds numerous activities into his curricula designed to foster a dynamic, engaging, and welcoming environment for his students, including having them take virtual tours and use a shared video and text annotation tool to allow students to hear each others’ perspectives. In one course, he even asks students to watch “Monty Python and the Quest for the Perfect Fallacy” as an engaging way to identify logical pitfalls.  

Smith began teaching right as the COVID pandemic hit, requiring him to pivot to an online environment. His SRTE scores indicate that that caused no significant challenge, as both the median and mode were seven out of seven. One student nominator commented, “The history course that Timothy taught was and remains to be one of the best and most educational classes that I have taken in my academic career.” 

Abigail Stebbins  

Abigail Stebbins is a doctoral candidate in curriculum and instruction who has focused on bringing interdisciplinary and justice-oriented approaches into nine sections of social studies and literacy courses in the elementary and early childhood education program. In her courses, Stebbins teaches future educators concepts, theories, and perspectives of teaching and learning, as well as how to design and facilitate inquiry-based lessons that blur disciplinary lines and promote democratic citizenship. To support this mission, Stebbins weaves together innovative assignments and activities into her courses, and cultivates an inclusive classroom where students simultaneously feel a sense of belonging and the ability to take risks. In her research, Stebbins examines children’s “everyday” social and civic learning that occur throughout the school day, how elementary teachers learn and use integrative pedagogies in the classroom, and critical approaches to using children’s literature and online curricular materials to teach elementary social studies education. 

One faculty nominator commented that “Abigail has been a great asset to the Penn State community and is an outstanding graduate teaching assistant. Learning from her and teaching alongside her has made me a better professor!” Many students share a similar affinity for Stebbins’ approach to teaching, with one commenting, “Her greatest strength is supporting students, humanizing them, and offering detailed constructive feedback.” 

Kelly Sweeney 

Kelly Sweeney is a doctoral candidate in communication arts and sciences who has taught an impressive 12 sections of courses in her time at Penn State and served as lead graduate student in assisting the preparation and instruction of over 125 sections of CAS 100A: Effective Speaking, for two semesters, which is a required course for many undergraduates. Her effectiveness and passion helped her also be selected to be assistant course director for CAS 100, which allowed her to hone her leadership skills and have a lasting impact on the department’s approach to teaching a course. Like many students, Sweeney was forced to transition to online teaching during the COVID pandemic, which prompted her with an opportunity to help students even after returning to in-person classes by showing them how presenting online differs from presenting in person, as well as how to be an effective public speaker while wearing a mask.  

Feedback from students underscores her impact, writing “The professor’s guidance really helped me to understand how to research, what to keep, and how to structure my arguments,” and, “It was a 9 a.m. class, and yet I found myself wanting to go every day.” 

Yin Tang 

Yin Tang is a doctoral candidate in statistics and a leader among the department's teaching assistants, having served as instructor of record for four undergraduate courses and teaching assistant for three others. His approach to teaching focuses on presenting the broader context of subjects to ignite students’ intrinsic motivation for learning. He employed innovative pedagogical approaches such as scaffolding for projects and exams that break these into small, progressive components; he gave students chances to work and find the problems themselves to understand why the class materials are important; he applied different styles of in-class activities and assignments to cultivate students’ reading capacity; and he also brought in pop culture, using the popular video game Animal Crossing to design a take-home exam. 

One faculty nominator wrote that Tang effectively integrates students' participation, thereby creating an interactive and inclusive learning environment for students, “Tang goes above and beyond to help his students, constantly trying to help them improve." Another wrote that Tang “always had a willingness to meet with students any time they needed help.” 

Brooke Tybush 

Brooke Tybush is a doctoral candidate in French and Francophone studies with a dual title in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. She has taught 16 sections of courses between both of her departments at Penn State as well as several language and culture courses while participating in a teaching exchange program at the University of Strasbourg in France. While instructing the entire three-course sequence of the basic French language program, she found innovative ways to engage students beyond the standard syllabus, such as verb conjugation races and reading comprehension puzzles. She was twice selected as an assistant language coordinator in the Basic Language program, through which she excelled with the administrative side of curriculum development and helped instructors to find creative ways to foster language production in their classrooms. One of her favorite courses to teach was “Villains and Monsters in French and Francophone Culture,” in which she incorporated unique communicative assignments such as an interactive tool that allowed students to converse with native French speakers from around the globe. In her classes Tybush ensures that her students engage with authentic materials from a diversity of cultures around the world to inspire them to think critically about their positionalities as global citizens.  

Tybush’s approach to pedagogy is founded on her belief that her role is to be a guide in the classroom, helping students to attain a deeper understanding of class subjects. At the same time, she allows them the space to explore their ideas and engage with materials through their unique cultural and personal lenses. Student feedback testifies to Tybush’s ability to be a successful instructor, with one nominator saying she is “the most caring and genuine teacher I’ve had at Penn State.” 

Morgan Vincent 

Morgan Vincent is a doctoral candidate in chemistry who has focused on adapting her teaching approach and course structure to the needs of her students. She has taught several undergraduate courses in chemistry and a graduate course in agriculture. In the chemistry departments, she is leading transitions from using expensive textbooks to free, open educational resources, so that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds could have equal access to quality learning materials without financial barriers. Her teaching extended beyond the traditional classroom, too, including serving as TA (teaching assistant) for International Food Production course in Germany and for several food science department short courses, including the Berkey Creamery’s famous Ice Cream Short Course. 

Outside of the classroom, Vincent actively pursues opportunities for self-improvement as an educator, embodying a genuine commitment to lifelong learning. She has self-enrolled in courses related to teaching and learning, founded a graduate teaching community for graduate students across diverse disciplines, has been actively involved in the development of a teacher observation tool, and is a contributing member of the Discipline-Based Education Research Journal Club. Vincent is dedicated to improving her teaching through a deep understanding of her students’ learning processes. Currently, she is working on a chemical education project titled “Student Understandings of Electron Configurations.” 

One nominator commented, “I have never had a graduate student so dedicated to learning pedagogical content knowledge,” which has certainly paid off in the classroom. One student testified, “Not only is she skilled at making complex science concepts clear, but she is also persistent in creating a meaningful learning experience for every student in the classroom.” 

AT&T Graduate Fellowship Award 

Mohammadreza Abbasi

Mohammadreza Abbasi is a doctoral student in electrical engineering. His research interests include RF and millimeter-wave integrated IC design, and he is developing novel silicon-based circuits and systems for next-generation sensing and communications. Focusing on the building blocks of these electronics devices, he has developed and is pushing the performance of components such as amplifiers, switches, and phase shifters to accelerate the development of systems that could be the basis of 6G technologies. One of his major innovations was the development of a D-band phase shifter with precise phase control and calibration-free operations. He presented this work at the IEEE Radio Frequency Integrated Circuit Symposium and received the Best Student Paper Award (First Place in 2023), and he was invited to publish this in the IEEE Journal of Solid-State Circuits, a prestigious journal in the field of electrical engineering.  

One nominator wrote, “I am confident that his impact on the research field will continue to grow, marked by even more substantial achievements in the future.” 

Harold K. Schilling Dean’s Graduate Scholarship 

Ryan Naylor

Ryan Naylor is a doctoral student in recreation, park and tourism management and a fellow in the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program LandscapeU who studies the socio-environmental challenges facing communities in the greater Arctic latitudes. His research explores the governance issues of tourism-related development and environmental change, including how local residents integrate tourism-related opportunities into traditional livelihoods and how local institutions preserve cherished aspects of community and cultural identity. Employing a community-engaged research methodology, he collaborated directly with three communities in the region, which paved the way for creating community advisory boards that provide ethical oversight of Naylor’s research. Outreach has been a central component of his initiatives, and he was interviewed by several Alaskan media outlets to raise concerns and share findings related to the tourism industry in those communities.  

Naylor’s work was supported by the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Social Sciences program, and he was also the founder of a student organization, the Environment and Society Graduate Student Association, as well as president of Penn State’s Student Organization for Society and Natural Resources. Nominators highlighted the impact of his work, saying It “addresses community and environmental health issues in a region facing numerous livelihood, resource, and energy transitions.” 

Professional Master’s Excellence Award 

Allison Brault  

Allison Brault is a master’s student in music with an emphasis on voice performance and pedagogy. She is a Jewish singer and teacher whose master’s capstone is bringing visibility to a little-known Jewish poet and amateur musician, Ilse Weber, who lived from 1903 to 1944 and was sadly a victim of the Holocaust. Only eight of Weber’s songs survived, and Brault has sought to bring more visibility in a to these works in an educational way that would benefit future music professors. She completed a detailed pedagogical analysis, linguistic and phonetic translation, and lecture recital of these songs.  

Brault has had a prominent performance role in numerous Penn State shows and community events, including being cast as the lead role in the opera "Dialogues of the Carmelites," winner of the School of Music’s Spring 2023 Sing Out competition, and performing operatic excerpts with the Philharmonic Orchestra. Nominators wrote, “Allison is one of those special people who is good at almost everything, whether it is voice performance, studio or classroom teaching, acting, or video and camera work" and that her professionalism was something that her peers always looked up to. 


Grace Buddle 

Grace Buddle is a master’s student in biotechnology who is interested in the neurodegenerative pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. Her master’s capstone was a six-month co-op in the neuroscience division of Merck Research Laboratory, where she developed a method for high-resolution, three-dimensional, whole brain analysis of Alzheimer’s pathology in mouse models. This project will allow for the development of novel methods for studying, diagnosing, and treating neurodegenerative diseases including ALS and Parkinson’s disease. She also helped to develop laboratory protocols for histological analysis and target validation of novel therapeutic candidates for Alzheimer’s, which are an important part of training for early career biotechnology scientists, and in this area she created process efficiencies that will benefit the community.  

Buddle was also an undergraduate biotechnology student at Penn State, where she continued independent research as a master’s student. She has been an active member of the research and broader community, serving as TA for upper-level laboratory courses, mentoring undergraduate students, and volunteering for Penn State THON as a group leader for the National Honor Fraternity. A nominator wrote that Buddle “consistently achieves top marks and grades in classes and exams, produces professional, timely work of the highest quality, and demonstrates respect of professors, laboratory manages, and classmates.” 

Kimberly Cunningham  

Kimberly Cunningham is a master’s student in architecture who is interested in achieving carbon efficiency throughout the life cycle of new buildings. Her focus has been employing a waste-based, or regenerative, architectural approach in order to redefine the concept of waste in design. Her projects to date have had a significant impact on their community. She has helped designed conceptual master plans for a nursing college in Zambia, developed civil drawings for a parking lot and recreational facility in Harrisburg , and worked closely with Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant on projects ranging from a custom bench design for the Abington campus to serving on the Sackett Building renovation project.  

Cunningham’s culminating experience combines both her architectural knowledge and her undergraduate background in civil engineering. She is exploring an approach to reuse and repurpose local waste, including recycled plastics, reclaimed lumber and reclaimed bricks. This project has a goal of transforming a dilapidated church building in Lock Haven into a group home for homeless individuals. These individuals will not only have in-house access to support services, but they will gain new skills as they work within this facility to repurpose recycled plastics into usable building materials. The project prioritizes passive and low energy heating and cooling strategies. 

One nominator wrote about Cunningham's project, “The questions she raises in her capstone project are already part of the solution and I have no doubt that the wider profession of architects, landscape architects, and urban planners, among others, will be keen on studying her capstone project as it addresses an urgent topic of our time.”  

Erin Stanek  

Erin Stanek is a master’s student in theater whose culminating project explores how material culture of clothing evolved from the time of cowboys in the American West to country music artists today. A costume designer with an interest in activism for the LGBTQ community, she developed three outfits for her culminating experience that represent shifting values seen in the music performance culture over time. Her work explores topics ranging from stereotypes of masculinity to Hollywood and Las Vegas culture to rodeo and modern-day costumes that incorporate more color and glamour to show acceptance of LGBTQ culture. As part of her project, she is making use of 3D printing to design and produce an extant Stetson cowboy hat.  

To date, there are only a handful of books researching this area of dress history, so Stanek’s research will be a significant contribution to the literature. What’s more, she has devoted countless hours to enriching the education of undergraduate theater students and has spent countless hours creating costumes for the School of Music broad array of productions. One nominator wrote of Stanek, “I know of no student who exemplifies the intelligence, determination, research abilities, and fabrication skills needed to develop such fine presentations.” 

Graduate Student Excellence in Mentoring Award 

Rebecca Welch 

Rebecca Welch is a doctoral student in materials science and engineering whose research focuses on modeling glass structures and properties. She mentored four undergraduate students not only at Penn State, but also her alma mater, Coe College, and Alfred University, building their skills with computational research. This resulted in three publications, two of which were co-first-authored with her mentees. The recipient of an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, she led a workshop with several undergraduate students in the art of proposal writing. She teaches a first-year seminar course for engineering majors at Alfred University, and she created and organized a new Young Researchers Glass Conference during COVID when in-person conferences were being canceled. She also organized Alfred University’s first ever "Night of Science" outreach event in which over 500 visiting K-12 students watched live demos from six different engineering departments. She is also the adviser for Alfred University’s Society of Women Engineers, helping to organize mentoring workshops, networking events, and club trips to teach undergraduates about graduate school. As part of the Programming Sub-committee of the American Ceramic Society, Welch helped organize networking events for undergraduates and created instructional materials helping students navigate the world of conferences.  

A nominator wrote of her, “Rebecca is a tireless mentor and role model for other young scientists.” 

Graduate Student International Research Award 

Sarah Richards

Sarah Richards is a doctoral candidate in ecology with a dual title in international agriculture and development. Recognizing that most scientific knowledge of agricultural soil management comes from U.S. and Europe, Richards identified the need to translate her research in other regions where the climate and impact of global change are going to be drastically different. Mirroring a project she conducted on a research farm in Pennsylvania, she has partnered with the University of Costa Rica in an application-focused project to understand how the use of cover crops influences the soil microbiome in a coffee production system. Her work will inform how various plant species (cover crops) and management practices such as pesticide and fertilizer application, including those native to Costa Rica, could be used to promote beneficial microbial populations that ultimately have the potential to improve the sustainability of intensive agricultural practices.  

Beyond her work in Costa Rica, Richards is committed to understanding agricultural challenges faced in different parts of the world. Continuing work from an independent study, she led a memoire on the use of Collaborative Learning Schools (CLS) to enhance agricultural knowledge transfer and incorporate traditional knowledge into management. She was part of the first cohort to implement a CLS in Uganda last summer, which interfaced local farmers, policy makers, and student partners from the U.S., as well as multiple countries in Africa and Europe. The CLS culminated into a policy brief she has co-authored as a resource for local administrators and continued discussion around action items that emerged from the CLS. 

One nominator said of Richards, “I have been nothing but impressed by her professionalism, her passion, and above all her tireless pursuit of incorporating international research into her thesis.” 

Thomas and June Beaver Fund Award 

Kiran Bhaskar

Kiran Bhaskar is a mechanical engineering doctoral candidate. His research journey brought him to a research partnership with Wabtec corporation, a leader in sustainable freight and passenger transportation networking based in Erie, Pennsylvania. His research focus has been understanding and advancing the safety and performance of lithium ion batteries, which are utilized in various applications ranging from handheld electronic devices to electric vehicles and power grids. Bhaskar developed data-driven fault diagnosis techniques to identify and mitigate electrical and thermal faults in battery packs, alongside devising strategies to enhance battery performance and longevity. For his achievements in the field of battery modeling and control systems, he was recognized as Dynamic Systems and Control Division Rising Star by the American Society of Mechanical Engineering in 2023. His collaborative research with Wabtec also secured him runner-up poster awards in 2022 and 2023 in the Penn State College of Engineering’s IndustryXchange program.  

One nominator said of him, “Kiran is doing novel and important work in battery systems that will have a significant impact in the field.” 

Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award 

Chowdhury Ali Imam  

Chowdhury Ali Imam is a master’s student in architecture whose research focuses on investigating computational approaches that support user participation in the design of housing. With an end goal of design democratization, Imam sought to address gaps in the implementation of 3D shape grammars, which are computational tools that encodes architectural knowledge by defining shape rules and can generate different design options by recursive rule application. To accomplish this challenging computational task, he used voxels, or 3D versions of pixels. He also developed a software prototype enabling non-technical individuals to interact with the generative system through text manipulation for customizing their house design. This research promises to establish user participation in the generative design process, enabling mass customization in large-scale housing projects.  

One nominator commented, “Chowdhury’s thesis makes it possible for lay people to design their own houses, thereby democratizing architecture and user satisfaction,” and went on to say, “To develop and implement such a novel and complex approach in the scope of a master’s thesis is truly remarkable.” 

Arjun Kizhakkemarakkattil Janardhanan  

Arjun Kizhakkemarakkattil Janardhanan is a master’s student in architecture who uses spatial analytical approaches to research the drivers of urban energy poverty in Baltimore. High energy costs can force residents to make difficult choices such as whether to put food on the table or heat their homes. His work contributes to an ongoing multi-institution study known as the Baltimore Social-Environmental Collaborative, which is funded by the Department of Energy. Janardhanan’s interdisciplinary work has provided insight into complex socio-spatial interrelations between energy consumption and climatic, demographic and morphological determinants that affect whether low-income households can pay their energy bills. The findings underscore the need for informed decisions by planners, policymakers, and designers to combat energy poverty. He believes that, in the pursuit of sustainable development, prioritizing justice is essential in every project. 

One nominator said of his project, “Arjun’s master’s thesis promises to make an impact in architectural discourse and social equity.” 

Adam Park  

Adam Park is a master’s student in computer science and engineering whose research seeks to address a challenge in the field of bioinformatics known as k-mer analysis. Because DNA sequences are very long, they are typically represented by their substrings, usually of a fixed length k. Despite the widespread adoption of this method in practice, identifying the “best” k value to use has been elusive and computationally overwhelming, lacking any theoretical support. Park developed a graph model that elucidates the relationship between genomic sequences and their substrings, supporting the enumeration of each set of k-mers at an exceptionally fast speed. While the state of the art in “substring indexing” techniques for genomic sequences has not been effective at analyzing the structure of k-mers, Park’s novel data structure is the first contribution to bridging the gap between these two well-developed concepts in bioinformatics. Park’s software implementation generates the graph in a highly space-efficient manner, which can further be used in multiple applications, e.g. computing de bruin graphs of all k’s simultaneously, which has not been feasible with any state-of-the-art tool. 

Park aims to pursue an academic career focused on advancing computational medicine by developing high-performance methods and making theoretical contributions to bioinformatics research. 

One nominator noted that Park’s master’s research is “poised to make a lasting impact on the field of bioinformatics, and his impressive accomplishments during his master’s program demonstrate his potential for continued success in academia and research.” 

The Penn State Alumni Association Scholarship for Penn State Alumni in the Graduate School 

Sarah Torhan  

Sarah Torhan is a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering with a geography minor. Her research takes a transdisciplinary approach to understanding the impact of land use change, infrastructure, and governance on water security in Paraguay. She uses a mixed-method approach that incorporates data from remote sensing, geospatial modeling, surveys, interviews, and natural language processing, to name a few. Her research has been funded through fellowships funded by organizations such as the Fulbright Foundation and the Department of Defense.  

A committed educator, Torhan serves in a professional engineering mentoring role for undergraduate students and is an Early Career Representative for the American Geophysical Union’s Environmental Change group. She plans to pursue a career in academia following her doctoral program, and says, “My motivation to be a professor lies in enabling others to improve our world, making knowledge accessible through creative outlets, and inspiring ethics in engineering.”  

One nominator wrote about Torhan, “Sarah embodies the Penn State spirit and is a wonderful ambassador for Penn State. She’s dedicated to making an impact on the world.” 

Tyus Yeingst  

Tyus Yeingst is a doctoral student in biomedical engineering whose research focuses on the use of biomaterials for pharmaceutical drug delivery, through which he hopes to have a positive impact on people suffering from trauma, aging, joint replacements and cancer. He has a second focus in tissue engineering, and he is exploring the development of on-demand, degradable materials that can be used in stents and wound care. Despite only being in the second year of his doctoral program, he has been first author on three peer-reviewed papers and one patent.  

As a child, Yeingst grew up in poor areas with poor healthcare in North Carolina, an experience that he said inspired his interest in biomedical engineering. He is the first in his family to attend college and says that mentors served an invaluable role in his success. He plans to pay that back throughout his life to mentor future scientists and engineers, and specifically for students from underrepresented populations. He is highly active in THON and served as a teaching and learning assistant at Penn State.  

One nominator wrote that Yeingst is “One of the most dedicated, innovative, and intelligent of our research team” and that “His bench science and engineering design skills are of the highest quality.” 

Penn State Alumni Association Dissertation Award 

Dima Abu-Aridah  

Dima Abu-Aridah is a doctoral student in architecture with an interest in understanding protracted refugee settlements and shelter design. Her research explores how refugees rearrange their public and private spaces after settling into a camp, using a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan as a case study. Families often must assemble shelters from a mix of materials reclaimed from the site or provided by NGOs, and some of the “temporary” shelters she has researched have housed four generations of families. Her dissertation highlights the conditions in refugee camps and the elements of the built environment that can empower refugees to develop a stronger sense of self-identity, self-efficacy, and self-reliance. This has implications for the humanitarian community and policymakers, and it directly relates to numerous United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  

Before beginning her doctoral journey, Abu-Aridah was a practicing architect and urban planner and completed master’s work on Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. She is the recipient of the E4C Research Fellowship from Engineering for Change, and she has received numerous travel grants and awards in recognition of her research, including last year’s Graduate Student International Research Award.  

Nominators said that Abu-Aridah has “deep experience in the nuances of socio-spatial research” and in her three years as a doctoral student, she has “impressed every professor she has learned from or researched for.” 

Katie Bernhard 

Katie Bernhard is a doctoral candidate in recreation, park, and tourism management with a dual title in transdisciplinary research on environment and society. Her research applies behavioral economics theory to understand livelihood risks and resilience in communities near national parks, protected areas and tropical forests in East and Central Africa. In affiliation with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the world’s longest-running gorilla research site and a premier conservation research institution in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bernhard explores how community members bordering endangered mountain gorilla habitat in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, evaluate their own resilience, and how they navigate risk in their livelihoods decision-making. By co-designing the research with communities and local organizations, and centering community members’ perspectives, agency and well-being, Bernhard hopes that this research will inform shifts toward community-driven conservation planning and policymaking, such as reforms to Rwanda’s tourism revenue sharing policy.  

Bernhard’s research is supported by the National Science Foundation’s Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences program, a fellowship in the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship in Regenerative Landscape Science, LandscapeU, and a NASA Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium Graduate Research Fellowship. Bernhard’s research has also previously been supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Central African Forest Initiative. She has coauthored nine peer-reviewed publications, four as first author, and has spoken at and chaired sessions at U.S. and African conferences, including at Google. One nominator said that Bernhard is “An exceptionally competent individual with impeccable academic credentials, extensive professional experience with several United Nations offices in Africa and the Middle East, a powerful methodological toolbox, and a well-crafted and urgently needed dissertation project.” 

Mason Breitzig  

Mason Breitzig is a doctoral candidate in epidemiology whose research is focused on developing new quality control metrics to enhance treatment practices and guidelines for depression and other mood disorders. Selecting effective treatment strategies for mood disorders remains a significant challenge for modern psychiatry. To address this, Breitzig developed the GCA-8, an algorithmic approach to evaluating whether real-world depression treatment matches evidence-based guidelines. His research showed that the innovative metric can identify gaps in treatment for future clinical research, practice and guideline development. He recently collaborated with Penn State College of Medicine faculty on a multi-institutional proposal to expand this tool and test it in diverse clinical populations. Part of this proposal aims to establish a pathway to large-scale health system deployment. Breitzig hopes that the GCA-8 will ultimately inspire an improvement in quality control, guideline development and outcomes for people with mental disorders.  

Breitzig has co-authored 26 peer-reviewed publications, including five as first author, and presented at four conferences. A nominator wrote that his research “stands to make a big impact on psychiatric practice in the U.S. His dissertation work is detail-oriented, critically considerate of existing literature to the utmost degree, and focused on real-world issues for mood disorders.” 

Haoyang Chen  

Haoyang Chen is a doctoral candidate in bioengineering whose research advances the neuroimaging techniques to better diagnose high prevalence neurological disorders, such as epilepsy, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. He developed cutting-edge neuroimaging techniques that combines advanced ultrasound and photoacoustic imaging systems, which gather data on whole brain cerebral blood flow, volume and oxygen saturation. His efforts in seamlessly integrating these systems will allow researchers and practitioners to unlock complex blood dynamics in neuro-diseases in ways that have never been done previously — which could have a drastic impact on ways to diagnosing and treating neurological disorders. In addition, Chen applied the developed imaging system to enhance brain tumor imaging, which can greatly assist with diagnosis and prognosis.  

Chen has published more than 10 journal articles, including six as first author, presented at eight conferences and has three patent applications. A nominator said of him: “Haoyang possesses exceptional research and educational background, coupled with a clear drive to advance biomedical technologies for broader societal impact.” 

Mayura Dhamdhere  

Mayura Dhamdhere is a doctoral candidate in biomedical sciences with a dual title in clinical and translational sciences. Her research goal is to understand the mechanisms behind Neuroblastoma, a common childhood cancer, with an aim of developing efficient treatment. Roughly half of diagnosed children have advanced stage metastatic disease, and many of these do not respond to the current combinations of therapies, often resulting in relapsed tumors. Her work pioneered a new genetic regulator, termed IGF2BP1, that is associated with neuroblastoma progression, and she is now exploring ways to target this as a therapeutic approach. Her research can help to develop improved treatments for these clinically resistant Neuroblastomas. Her dissertation project has also led to new modeling techniques that will greatly benefit the neuroblastoma research community.  

Dhamdhere has authored or co-authored five peer-reviewed papers and presented at eight conferences. One nominator wrote, “Throughout her graduate studies, Mayura demonstrated her creative and independent thinking as well as her ability to write research papers and grant applications that are both intriguing from a basic science point of view and also highly translatable.” 

Marius Jürgensen  

Marius Jürgensen is a doctoral candidate in physics whose research explores topology in photonic devices, which are devices with properties that are resistant to disorder and fabrication imperfections. He developed a novel theoretical approach to how light behaves in one topological system, called Thouless pump, at extremely high optical power, when the light prefers to stay together rather than spreading out. By fabricating his own photonic samples, he observed integer and fractionally quantized transport of light. 

His work shows that topological photonics is still an open field of research with surprising new findings. His results are especially important, given that light is proposed to be part of next-generation, on-chip computation and quantum information devices. In a separate research project, he experimentally studied chemical deep-etching of scintillating materials. This research can be applied to potentially make optical technologies such as X-rays and CT scans several orders of magnitude more efficient, according to his nominators. 

During his time at Penn State, Jürgensen has authored or co-authored four peer-reviewed papers, including serving as lead author in several high-impact journals such as Nature, Nature Physics and Physical Review Letters. He has also received the Peter Eklund Award for Scientific Communication. One nominator lauded him, “Marius excelled in analytical, numerical, and experimental work, and is truly ambitious and original in his approach to solving problems and pushing projects forward.” 

Myoung Hwan Kim  

Myoung Hwan Kim is a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering whose research seeks to advance the field of artificial tissue and organ development. Through the application of advanced bioprinting techniques, he aims to create artificial tissues and miniaturized organs that mimic the functionality and physiological aspects of human tissues and organs, such as bone, pancreas, and lungs, as well as cancer. This research enables the fabrication of tissues, facilitating enhanced tissue regeneration and transplantation. In addition, these tissues can be used for studying disease mechanisms and evaluating potential treatments. His research marks significant progress in developing new strategies for regeneration, holding great promise for advancements in medical treatments and decreasing the need for relying on animal testing. 

Kim has co-authored 20 peer-reviewed publications, including five as first author. Nominators praised “his research and engineering skills, theoretical insights to the problems, and his independence in carrying out research tasks in tissue engineering and bioprinting” as well as his “unwavering commitment to advancing scientific knowledge and innovation.” 

Corinne Lajoie  

Corinne Lajoie is a doctoral candidate in philosophy with a dual title in women's, gender, and sexuality studies, whose research centers on dominant approaches to accessibility in society. In their dissertation, they show that a focus on legal compliance and providing mandated accommodations has had a reverse effect by placing an unfair burden on people with disabilities and exacerbating inequalities. The focus of their work touches on accessibility issues in higher education and how in practice, legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities act have resulted in many non-disabled individuals only focusing on access when legal compliance is suggested. This, they argue, reduces a focus on meaningful access that is a shared social responsibility.  

Lajoie received the Forest S. Crawford Family Graduate Fellowship in Ethical Inquiry from the Rock Ethics Institute and has been lead author on eight peer-reviewed articles and two book chapters, in addition to giving six invited talks and fourteen conference presentations. A nominator said of them, “Corinne has consistently evidenced intellectual openness, generosity toward their graduate student and faculty colleagues, genuine curiosity about multiple methodologies.” 

Mengqi Liao 

Mengqi "Maggie" Liao is a doctoral student in mass communications who studies the psychological aspects of communication technologies, and in particular the ways in which we form trust towards newer media such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality. In her dissertation, Liao investigated generative AI applications such as ChatGPT that hallucinate and generate misinformation. She examined whether the conversationality of AI and why some users believe that AI has “magical” abilities. This research has implications for advancing theoretical knowledge about emerging media, enhancing users’ media literacy, and designing more socially responsible technology.  

During her doctoral experience, Liao was first author on 11 publications and co-author on another four papers, in addition to an impressive 13 conference presentations. Nominators called her “a fully rounded scholar who has a strong grasp of theory,” she is “methodologically adventuresome, yet astute,” and that “she will emerge as a leading light in the social sciences in the next couple of decades.” 

Meredith Persico  

Meredith Persico is a doctoral candidate in horticulture who investigates methods that improve the economic and environmental sustainability of wine grape production. Her dissertation research focuses on the impacts of temperature stress on grapevine health and productivity, and she is currently investigating the impacts of heatwaves on grapevine dormancy induction, winter survival, and spring budbreak. Her previous research explored viticultural methods to delay spring budbreak in order to prevent grapevine freeze damage, without compromising fruit and wine quality. This research is important as the impacts of climate change are becoming more prevalent in the agriculture industry. Persico’s research prioritizes applied solutions for grape growers to prevent economic losses from climate change. 

Persico is a recipient of a Predoctoral Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and she has earned several scholarships from Penn State, the American Wine Society Educational Foundation, and the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV). Persico received ASEV’s President’s Award for Scholarship in Enology and Viticulture, which is only given to one student of viticulture annually. One nominator wrote that Persico is “a bright and motivated student with great inter-personal skills, and exhibits excellence in research, grantsmanship, mentorship, and outreach.” 

Gavin Rackoff  

Gavin Rackoff is a psychology doctoral candidate who is examining methods of expanding access to mental health care for individuals suffering from major depressive disorders. He is especially interested in consumer technologies such as smartphone apps, which have the potential to greatly increase access to mental health care but in practice have not had limited effects in practice. Many self-help mood management apps are text and image-heavy, and front-loaded with psychoeducational materials that don’t deliver practical skills, which results in many people giving up their usage after only one week. Rackoff developed an audio-based self-help intervention that is both efficient and engaging, and it focuses on helping people find and engage with rewarding activities that can alleviate depressive moods.  Rackoff’s dissertation evaluates the effectiveness of this intervention for alleviating symptoms of depression. 

As a doctoral student, Rackoff was first author or co-author of 19 peer-reviewed papers, and he received the best conference poster presentation award from the International Society for Research on Internet Interventions. A nominator said about him, “Gavin has shown remarkable vision, creativity, intellect, and motivation to pursue a career advancing mental health research.” 

Maria Rovito  

Maria Rovito is a doctoral candidate in American studies who researches stigma in the medical community toward endometriosis. Endometriosis affects one out of nine women in the U.S. and can cause debilitating menstrual pain, yet it takes approximately 11 years for a woman in the U.S. to be diagnosed due to women's menstrual pain and suffering being perceived as “normal.” Rovito seeks to uncover the historical, literary, and cultural norms and representations of endometriosis, to help doctors and the public understand why so many women with the disease are dismissed by physicians. Her goal is to shorten the time to diagnosis for women and girls. 

Rovito has given more than 20 conference presentations as well as six invited talks as a doctoral student, and she has published peer-reviewed articles in two premier journals for disability studies, Disability Studies Quarterly and the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies. Nominators wrote that Rovito is “an incredibly talented and brilliant scholar” and that she “has a talent for bringing information to students and other audiences in an accessible, rigorous manner.” 

Divya Singh 

Divya Singh is a physics doctoral candidate whose research explores how gravitational wave observations of black holes and neutron stars can provide a way to detect dark matter. Cosmologists estimate that 85% of the matter in the universe is dark matter, yet despite decades of research in this field, the nature of dark matter remains elusive, in part because dark matter does not interact with light. However, it does interact with gravity, and Singh conducts and develops searches to identify gravitational wave signals that originate from dark matter, using data collected by the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave observatories. In addition, her work attempts to constrain fundamental properties of dark matter, such as its mass, abundance, and interaction with visible matter based on these observations.  

Singh is lead author on numerous peer-reviewed articles in high-impact journals such as Physical Review D, as well as providing major contributions to gravitational wave research papers with hundreds of co-authors. Nominators said that she is “internationally recognized for her work on gravitational wave observations and inference” and that her work represents a “paradigm shift that is long overdue” in the field.