2018/2019 Illinois Scholars

The Illinois Chapter of ARCS® Foundation has granted awards to a total of nine scholars for academic year 2018-2019.  These scholars were selected from the five institutions that are our Chapter's Academic Partners:

  • Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Loyola University of Chicago Stritch School of Medicine
  • Northwestern University
  • The University of Chicago
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Awards will be presented at the Scholar Awards Reception held on October 24, 2018. Click here to learn more about the event and to register!

Our Academic Partners  identify qualified scholars  who then go through a detailed vetting process before they are matched with  those donors who support named scholars, or before they are chosen to be awarded from the general Scholar Award Fund.  This year and in recent years, each scholar receives an annual award for a maximum of three years, and becomes a welcome member of the ARCS® Illinois family.

Illinois Institute of Technology
Katherine Asztalos

PhD in Mechanical Aerospace & Engineering
ARCS® Foundation Joanna Stein Memorial Scholar

Katherine’s long-term career goal is to become a Flight Director for NASA, and plans to apply as a flight controller and as an astronaut upon completion of the PhD.  The opportunity to work at a mission control center represents a perfect nexus of overseeing the integration of several different subsystems and ensuring that each operates correctly for the overall success of a mission.  In her research lab, Katherine has become familiar with the fundamentals of Computational Fluid Mechanics, and is working on the development of simulation and performance assessment tools for vertical-axis wind turbines.  Her capacity to determine original and creative solutions to complex issues, her thoroughness and enormous persistence all combine to help make her an outstanding scientist and a future leader in her field. 

Ivan Lepetic

PhD in Physics
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

Ivan has focused his research on neutrinos, which are both the most numerous and the most elusive particles in the universe.  Neutrinos are produced from many source including nuclear reactors on Earth, the Sun, and supernovae explosions.  The ability to detect a particle and to define which of the three known types of neutrinos is being examined would greatly improve our knowledge of the processes involved in core-collapse supernovae and neutrino oscillations.  Ivan has performed preliminary research at Fermilab’s liquid argon time projection chambers (LArTPCs), a detection technology essential to the future of particle physics.  His research pushes this technology’s boundaries by testing its ability to detect neutrinos much lower in energy than those the technology is currently geared towards, which is produced by the accelerators at Fermilab.  This advancement will enable LArTPCs to be simultaneously utilized for both cutting-edge particle physics and cutting-edge astrophysics research. 

Loyola University of Chicago Stritch School of Medicine
Mai Nguyen

MD/PhD in Burn and Shock Trauma
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

The focus of Mai's research is understanding and developing novel burn treatment. Severe burns in humans result in skin barrier disruption, excessive inflammation, impaired wound healing, skin bacterial microbiome dysfunction, and susceptibility to infection, sepsis and death. There is an important interplay between the immune system and skin cells to protect against pathogens and environmental damages. The immune system communicates with itself and other systems via small molecules called interleukins. Interleukin 22 (IL-22), in particular, is involved in multiple pathways and has been shown in prior studies to play a crucial role in the intestine barrier function after burn injuries. Mai is interested in studying the underlying molecular mechanism of how IL-22 mediates the inflammatory response and healing in burned skin and further defining its clinical implications.

Northwestern University
Jenny Liu

MD/PhD in Mechanical Engineering
Aileen S. Andrew/ARCS® Foundation Scholar

Jenny's research contributes to understanding protein function, which is important for treating diseases caused by protein mutations. Proteins perform a variety of functions, ranging from scaffolding for structural support, to enzymes that speed up  reactions. However, proteins are not static. Proteins move to perform their function, like an enzyme bringing two components together. I will work on describing motion in large sets of proteins. Jenny's goal is to find patterns in protein dynamics, sort the patterns into categories, and explore how motion patterns affect function. Improving predictions for changes in protein motion is important for studying mutated proteins in human diseases, designing drugs to slow down an overactive protein, or designing synthetic proteins to replace mutated ones. 

Jonathan Strutz

PhD in Chemical & Biological Engineering
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

Jonathan is driven by the need to make drugs affordable and their manufacturing environmentally sustainable. Towards this goal, his research focuses on new ways to genetically engineer microorganisms (e.g. bacteria) as a tool to quickly and cheaply produce drugs using lignin, an abundant renewable resource. Lignin is a main structural component of plants, making it one of the most abundant renewable resources on Earth. Lignin can potentially be used for many purposes, including the production of drugs, but this is difficult due to its complex chemical structure. Fortunately, lignin can be broken down into a mixture of many smaller, simpler molecules. However, separating out the molecules we want from this mixture is very expensive. Therefore, Jonathan's research proposes (1) using a microorganism that naturally “eats” many of these molecules and (2) engineering the microorganism to convert these molecules into useful chemicals such as pharmaceutical drugs. 

Victoria Cooley

PhD in Materials Science and Engineering
Deborah A. Goldwater Scholar

Victoria's current project is understanding the decoration of a Roman-era (about 200 AD) Egyptian portrait mummy, which has a painted wooden panel over the mummy’sface. Portrait mummies are the earliest surviving Western portraits, and there is much that is unknown about how they were produced, who produced them, and where the materials in the paint came from. By piecing together elemental and molecular information, the team can identify the species of wood panel, the identity and condition of the organic binding medium, and degradation products that have formed over the object’s 2000-year lifespan. By combining large- and small-scale techniques, Victoria can determine the pigments used in each region of the portrait, as well as in each layer of microscopic cross sections sampled from the object.

The University of Chicago
Heather Skeen

PhD in Evolutionary Biology
Alan Schriesheim/ARCS® Foundation Scholar

Heather's research focuses on the ecology and evolution of microorganisms that exist inside the vertebrate organisms, specifically birds. Her primary goal is to better understand the host-microorganism dynamic through several studies that investigate both the host and the microorganism. Fist, she is comparing the overall composition of the gut microbiome within a group of migratory birds to see what effect a changing environment has on the bacterial composition pf the stomach. Second, she is working to identify genetic differences within a portion of the innate immune system of birds that host avian malarial pathogens to see if and how the innate immune influences the probability of acquiring an infection. Finally, she is tracking avian malaria in a group of migratory birds over a period of 30 years to investigate how pathogen prevalence changes over time.

James Lasker

PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

From an early age, James was interested in the mysteries of the universe. When he learned of the discovery of dark energy, the mysterious substance that makes up 73% of the universe, his curiosity acquired a purpose: figuring out exactly what that dark energy was.  A third-year graduate student in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, James is currently making critically important contributions to the Dark Energy Survey (DES), which aims to address the physical origin of comic acceleration: why is the universe speeding up? DES is an on-going, five-year survey of the southern hemisphere that is using a new, wide-field camera on the Blanco 4-meter telescope in Chile to address these questions.  James’ research involves the study of supernovae with DES, one of the primary probes of cosmic acceleration and dark energy and has established himself as a critical player within the supernova effort, and is key to its scientific success.  He has designed and is currently carrying out a new program of observations of new standard stars with the Dark Energy Camera, which is anticipated to solve the remaining calibration problems for DES supernovae, which is anticipated to be invaluable for future cosmic surveys. 

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Kristen Vaccaro

PhD in Computer Science
Helen S. Brach/ARCS® Foundation Scholar

Kristen's research is on social computing: understanding how people make sense of algorithmic controls of their social media news feeds. Her most recent project uncovered a placebo effect for controls on social media – that is, they found that people are happier with news feeds where controls are present, whether they work or not. They also studied how people go about making sense of the controls. Future work will explore the design implications for controls as well as more deeply exploring the perception of agency by users, including the role of situational constraint on users and potential learned helplessness. This work has potential impact on our larger goal of designing for algorithmic literacy. Controls on social media feeds are one important area where algorithms impact users’ everyday lives, so understanding how users make sense of them can help us design systems that help users to better understand algorithms. 

Jessica Saw

PhD in Molecular & Integrative Physiology
ARCS® Foundation Scholar

Jessica was nominated by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as its top-scoring student in last year’s campus-wide competition for the Graduate College’s Illinois Distinguished Fellowship.  Jessica’s research centers on the mechanisms of kidney stone formation under the multidisciplinary lens of geology, microbiology and medicine, and her labs recently developed concepts of microbially-driven mineralization to kidney stone formation.  By imaging kidney stones with high-resolution microscopy, she is gaining insight into the growth mechanisms, and has identified that the crystal structure of kidney stones resembles that of travertine deposits of the ancient Roman Aqueducts and Mammoth Springs of Yellowstone.  Similar to the stone formation mechanisms of natural environments, the microbial community living within the kidney may upregulate proteins that control stone growth.  The implications of these findings could fundamentally transform kidney stone therapy.