Fullbright Award Winners

Fullbright Award Winners

UD students continue to be honored by premier international scholarship programs

Three University of Delaware students — current and recently graduated — have been named recipients of 2022 U.S. Department of State Fulbright scholarships. The Fulbright Program is the nation’s premier international scholarship program, designed to foster mutual understanding between United States citizens and people of other countries. An additional recent UD graduate was the recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship, which provides an opportunity for students to learn languages essential to national security.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program awards allow young graduates and graduate students the opportunity to conduct research, study or teach English in more than 140 countries.

Jana Mae Huss

Jana Mae Huss

Jana Mae Huss, who graduated in 2022, earned an English Teaching Assistant Award to Germany. Prashant Ramesh, a doctoral student, earned a Research Fulbright to study in France. Elaine Ansah, a 2021 graduate, earned an English Teaching Assistant Award to study in Kenya.

Huss completed their bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a concentration in English as a second language this past spring. During their time as a UD World Scholar, they studied in Madrid, Spain. Before coming to UD, Huss took German classes and studied in Germany, hence why they were interested in returning to the country. Huss plans to pursue a career in English as second language (ESL) and is currently in Hamburg, Germany, working in a K-12 classroom for their Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.

Prashant Ramesh (pictured above) was excited to win the Fulbright-Universite Paris-Saclay Doctoral Research Award, which is only granted to three U.S. students each year. Ramesh is pursuing his doctoral degree in materials science and engineering at UD, and was looking for opportunities that involved academic collaborations abroad. He will be conducting doctoral research on quantum optics of solid state quantum dot molecules. He said he looks forward to expanding on his almost-forgotten high school French language skills. He said his research and international experience in India and Thailand while working in industry made him a strong candidate for the award.

Elaine Ansah (not pictured) earned her bachelor’s degree in political science with a concentration in global politics and a minor in Africana studies in 2021. While at UD, she was president of the Delaware African Student Association and senator for the Student Government Association. She is currently in Kenya working via her Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.

Kiara Cronin

Kiara Cronin

Kiara Cronin was selected as a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient to learn Swahili. The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program is an intensive overseas language and cultural immersion group-based program for American students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. Students spend eight to 10 weeks abroad studying one of 14 critical languages. The program includes intensive language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences designed to promote rapid language gains.

Cronin, normally, would have joined the program in Tanzania, but the pandemic prompted a change to virtual instruction. Cronin graduated in 2022 with an Honors bachelor of arts degree in history and international relations with a concentration in diplomacy. She said she hopes to work for the U.S. Department of State or a similar non-governmental organization, making use of her new language skills. While at UD, she was a Eugene du Pont Memorial Scholar and interned with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, a non-profit organization focusing on peace building in conflict zones.

Learn more about Fulbrights at UD

Interested students and alumni are encouraged to contact UD Fulbright U.S. Student Program and Critical Language Scholarship advisors in the Honors College at honors@udel.edu.

| Photos courtesy of U.S. State Department, Prashant Ramesh, Jana Mae Huss, Kiara Cronin |

Improving Human Health

Improving Human Health

UD’s Xinqiao Jia secures $4.85 million to advance vocal fold, salivary gland research

University of Delaware materials scientist Xinqiao Jia has received a combined $4.85 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for research aimed at improving human health through new approaches in tissue engineering.

Tissue engineering is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on developing methods to repair or replace biological tissues that have been damaged or degraded over time.

Jia and colleagues will explore ways to regenerate salivary glands that have been damaged by radiation therapy for head and neck cancers. She also will focus on understanding what causes damage or scarring to vocal folds, the pliable tissue that enables our ability to talk.

Faster than a hummingbird’s wings

Vocal folds produce sound by vibrating more than 100 times per second as air from the lungs passes through the paired tissues. In other words, our vocal folds do the heavy lifting when we speak.

For comparison, this movement is nearly two times faster than the average North American hummingbird, which flaps its wings about 53 times per second in flight.

Each vocal fold consists of a soft connective tissue, known as the lamina propria (LP), sandwiched between a muscle and a flat, protective layer called the epithelium (EP). It’s a delicate structure, and little is known about the molecular and cellular processes that can lead to chronic vocal fold scarring, leaving millions of affected Americans with limited treatment options.

Armed with $2.49 million in NIH funding, Jia, professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering, will spend the next five years working to understand how vocal folds regenerate after damage — or don’t — and why.

“If you have a scar or scab on your skin, eventually it just falls off. But on a vocal fold this scarring persists and doesn’t go away. With scarred vocal folds, your ability to speak is severely compromised,” she said.

Jia is particularly interested in whether vocal fold damage results from chemical (i.e., smoking) or mechanical causes to drive development and testing of new treatment options.

Building on previous research, she plans to create a vocal-fold-on-a-chip model with embedded sensor technology to monitor the development of the vocal fold tissue in real time with help from several interdisciplinary colleagues. UD collaborators include Joe Fox, a pioneer in developing highly efficient chemical reactions for making tissue-mimicking hydrogels used to grow the vocal folds, and materials scientist Charles Dhong, who specializes in measuring mechanical forces at biological interfaces. Susan Thiebault, who has expertise in vocal fold physiology and biology at University of Wisconsin, Madison, also will contribute to the project.

The model will include built-in airflow to stimulate speech, allowing the device to reflect the human anatomy and physiology more closely than current models. The researchers also plan to introduce cigarette smoke into the chip model to explore whether smoking plays a role in the damage that can cause vocal-fold tissue to become stiff and fibrotic.

“Once our model is validated, we can begin testing medications for repairing the tissue,” Jia said.

Help for dry-mouth syndrome

Meanwhile, in a second project with $2.36 million in NIH funding over five years, Jia and colleagues will investigate methods to restore function in salivary glands that have been damaged by radiation therapy for head and neck cancers.

The human body contains three major salivary glands. When these salivary glands become damaged, they no longer secrete the saliva needed for digestion and for keeping the mouth free of bacteria. This can lead to a condition called dry-mouth syndrome, or xerostomia, a permanent and painful side effect of radiation therapy that affects about 50,000 head and neck cancer patients annually in the United States.

Jia explained that it is acinar cells that are responsible for creating saliva, which is collected in the ducts and channeled to the mouth. While the acinar cells become damaged after radiation treatment, the channels remain largely intact. Interestingly, within these salivary gland channels are progenitor cells that have the potential to become different cell types and restore the salivary gland.

In previous work, Jia and colleagues including Dr. Robert Witt, director of the head and neck oncology clinic at ChristianaCare’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, showed that it was possible to isolate progenitor cells from salivary gland tissue samples taken prior to radiation therapy and grow them in hydrogels in the lab into multicellular structures that mimic the structure of acini that secrete saliva. While this advance is hopeful and exciting, the hard part has been figuring out ways to reintegrate the tissue in the body.

For the new arc of this work, Jia enlisted several researchers with expertise in needed areas to join the team, including Fox and Jason Gleghorn, a biomedical engineer. Gleghorn’s background in the biological processes that cause organs, such as the lungs, to develop a branched architecture and in developing artificial blood vessels will be useful in the context of salivary gland regeneration, Jia said. In the meantime, Fox’s chemistry expertise can help provide the cells with the proper environment so that they organize and orient correctly to do their job. Kenneth Yamada, a biologist with the National Institutes of Dental and Craniofacial Research with extensive background in the developmental biology of salivary glands, rounds out the team.

“One thing we’ve learned from literature and our previous study is that the salivary gland doesn’t develop if there is no nerve or blood vessel,” said Jia. “In this new work, we plan to reconstitute blood vessels alongside the growing salivary gland in hopes the vasculature will provide the right signal and architecture to guide the development of the salivary gland. It’s going to be very difficult, but you have to start somewhere.”

| Photo by Evan Krape

Quantum Dots and Classic Rock

Quantum Dots and Classic Rock

Engineering doctoral student recognized

Prashant Ramesh is living out his childhood dreams.

As a kid, Ramesh devoured books about modern physics and idolized Albert Einstein. He took piano lessons and singing lessons and listened to classic rock with his father.

Today, as a doctoral student in the University of Delaware Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Ramesh uses the principles of modern physics to study quantum dots, tiny nanoscale semiconductors that could someday enable faster computing, more precise medical imaging technologies and more. Outside the lab, he plays guitar in a band composed of fellow engineering students.

For his well-rounded contributions to the College of Engineering and his potential to make an impact on the world, Ramesh was selected as the 2020 winner of the Laird Fellowship, an annual award that helps one first-year engineering graduate student at the University of Delaware pursue interests beyond his or her field of study.

From the lab to the stage

Ramesh does cutting-edge research in UD’s Nanofabrication Facility, which features a cleanroom environment where scientists can make tiny devices smaller than the width of a human hair. Ramesh is co-advised by Matt Doty, professor of materials science and engineering, physics, and electrical and computer engineering, and Joshua Zide, professor of materials science and engineering.

Ramesh’s research intrigues him deeply, harkening back to his early days of reading biographies of famous physicists. “On a very practical side, being in the cleanroom is a lot of fun,” he said. “I like tinkering with things, working with equipment and getting things to work a certain way, and so this is just that at an extremely cutting-edge level. On the more theoretical side, I’ve always been really curious about quantum physics, and it’s just so interesting how things at a small scale diverge from all properties that we see at a macro scale.”

The researchers are using a technique called molecular beam epitaxy, which allows you to deposit materials in very thin (atomic scale) layers to create semiconductor devices. Another graduate student primarily grows the materials, and Ramesh fabricates devices and does optical characterization — using lasers and other components to examine the material’s properties.

UD’s resources in this area drew Ramesh to Delaware. He did undergraduate research in quantum materials at Penn and has industry experience working on novel solar devices. “I was looking for schools that had invested a lot into nanotech and fabrication, because I knew that I wanted to do that kind of work, so I searched for schools that have really nice, robust nanofabrication and characterization centers,” he said.

Another thing Ramesh wanted to pursue? His passion for music.

“Music has been a big part of my life, but in very different ways throughout different phases of my life,” said Ramesh.

Doctoral student and 2020 George W. Laird Fellowship winner Prashant Ramesh enjoys playing guitar in his spare time.

Growing up, Ramesh studied Carnatic singing, a classical Indian musical genre. When he attended the University of Pennsylvania for his undergraduate studies, he joined Penn Masala, a premier South Asian a cappella singing group. With Penn Masala, Ramesh performed all over the world and even appeared in the movie Pitch Perfect 2, where the group sang “Any Way You Want It” by Journey.

After graduating from Penn, where he received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in materials science and engineering, Ramesh started playing guitar just about every day. He also writes some of his own songs.

Ramesh joined UD in fall 2019, and at a materials science and engineering department get-together, he connected with the members of a student-led band playing at the event. He asked if he could jam with them, and before long, they had invited him to join the band. They practice about once a week.

The Legacy of the Laird Fellowship

Ramesh joins a long list of accomplished, well-rounded engineers as this year’s winner of the Laird Fellowship.

The George W. Laird Merit Fellowship is given to honor the memory of George W. Laird, who earned a bachelor of arts degree at Hamilton College in 1964 and then attended the University of Delaware, where he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with highest honors in 1968 and a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1971. On Sept. 6, 1977, at the age of 35, George W. Laird was killed in a tragic accident.

Laird Fellows are selected for balanced excellence, demonstrating intellectual capability and qualities such as character, maturity, sense of humor, creativity, ingenuity, and imagination, coupled with practical skills, perseverance, and the common sense necessary to execute ideas, according to the selection committee.

The Laird Fellowships differs from traditional grants and is unique among graduate student awards. Past winners stay in touch through regular events. They’re like a family.

“In a way, the Laird Fellowship is kind of reflective of a lot of the things that I love about UD,” said Ramesh. “And what I mean by that is, first of all, the fellowship itself is very unique and is meant to encourage students’ interests outside of engineering, which is not something you typically see. And I think that’s reflective of the fact that UD really encourages the holistic growth and development of students.”

| Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson |