December 11, 2018

This fall, five Presidential Fellows and two inaugural GEM Fellows (one student holds both distinguished fellowships) arrived at WPI ready to launch their research in many fields. Last year, three inaugural Presidential Fellows arrived at WPI and these highly qualified research scholars bring experiences and knowledge to elevate the university’s research profile.

“These fellows have all done amazing things,” says Terri Camesano, dean of graduate studies and chemical engineering professor. “These are competitive programs, and they were highly deserving of the recognition and prestige that the Fellowships offer. All our GEM and Presidential Fellows come from diverse backgrounds, and they enhance our grad community at WPI.”

On a university level, bringing scholars from other universities helps broaden the pool from which WPI recruits. Because the students all have fellowships, they are able to dive right into their research and devote more time to research without having to designate some time for TA work.

We recently asked these scholars about how they arrived at WPI.

Lynnette Robinson, Presidential & GEM Fellow

For scholars like Lynnette, a constant fascination with mathematics usually indicates a potential career choice. But the career path isn’t always obvious. Lynnette says opportunities to move into industry helped her choose WPI for her research.

Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Field of specialization: PhD candidate, mathematical sciences

Why did you want to come to WPI? I came to WPI because I want to do research in the realm of applied mathematics, which my department is strong in. Also, I am interested in pursuing a career in industry, and I really like the pipeline WPI has created with moving graduates into these different companies.

What was your aha moment when you realized this was your path? When I found myself always asking, "Why?" and "How?" to all things math-related.

What do you find fascinating about your field of study? I find mathematics to be so fascinating because you can take math into any field and find a use for it.

Why is education important to you? The world is always changing—and expanding your knowledge and sharpening your skills to be able to continue to adapt to these changes is the best thing you can do.

Best piece of advice you ever followed? “Don’t limit yourself, if there is something you want, just go for it because you will eventually get it. The only time a door will truly be closed is when you close it on yourself.”

How do you like to unwind? When I am away from academics, I like to write poetry, draw, and listen to music. 

Alexander Castaneda, Presidential Fellow

Always fascinated by space travel, Alexander’s undergraduate years at the University of Illinois-Champaign helped him connect his passion with realistic uses. He hopes his work will eventually lead him to a role as a professor and will help advance travel to Mars (he’s already worked with NASA on research).

Hometown: Cottage Grove, Wisconsin

Field of study/specialization: PhD candidate, mechanical engineering with a focus on thermal/fluids science. I am currently researching the topic of electrohydrodynamics and its application to both space and terrestrial technologies.

Why did you want to come to WPI? WPI has a great reputation as an engineering school with talented faculty and students. Additionally, the size of this institution attracted me because I personally feel that successful graduate studies require a lot of attention from academic advisors, which is not something I felt I could experience at a larger university.

The Presidential Fellowship is unique and blesses me with the opportunity to devote my time fully toward research, which is a luxury not all PhD students can afford. I am very grateful for that. Finally, Professor Yagoobi, who is my PhD advisor, conducts research on a topic that fascinates me, and I feel that I can really make a positive and notable impact in that area under his leadership.

What was your aha moment when you realized this was your path? I have always been fascinated by flight, space, and travel in general. Growing up, I was fascinated by the spaceships, cars, and machines featured in Star Wars, Mad Max, Blade Runner, etc., and I always wondered about the underlying mechanisms involved in them. By the time college rolled around, I knew that having a mechanical engineering degree would better prepare me for a career in the development of this technology.

Due to this, I found myself intrigued by the challenges faced by the heating/cooling of travel technology. In space, specifically, the fluidic and heat transfer properties of these mechanisms become altered in the absence of gravity, which leads to unique and highly researchable outcomes.

What do you find fascinating about your field of study? The most fascinating thing about electrohydrodynamics is that it is an ever-growing area of thermal science, and its applications range from improving the thermal processes of current terrestrial machines, to developing revolutionary space technology to unlock the potential for further and safer travel. It is also highly collaborative, and it has heavy involvement all over the world, most notably in the US, France, Japan, Russia, and Canada. Because of this, I find myself in a very grateful position.

Why is education important to you? In general, education is very important as it develops people into individuals who can think critically, diagnose current issues within a given system, and construct solutions. Education also inherently teaches people to adapt. Adaptation is an important skill to have, and it is useful in everyday life.

How do you hope your WPI experience helps you change the world? I hope that my education and experience at WPI allows me to contribute to surpassing the current limits of space travel. With improved cooling systems in today’s space technologies, I am hoping that humankind can continue to surpass the current barriers of travel and continue to reach beyond.

Best piece of advice you ever followed? “It’s not how we make mistakes, but how we correct them, that defines us.”

How do you like to unwind? Aside from academics, I usually unwind through physical activity. I am an avid weightlifter and runner, and I also love to play soccer with my friends at WPI.

Tofunmi Ogunfunmi, GEM Fellow

For Tofunmi, materials science and engineering is a fascinating and appealing mix of topics, problems, and solutions that all require engineers to use various skills at any given time. The idea is irresistible to her.

Hometown: Dallas, Texas

Field of study/specialization: MS candidate, materials science and engineering

Why did you want to come to WPI? WPI has a research program that is community-driven and directly hands-on. 

What was your aha moment when you realized this was your path? I was in a mentorship program when I was younger, and for the mentorship program, we had a webinar with a lady. The lady said that she worked for L'Oreal making makeup. At the time, that blew my mind. None of the people I saw growing up had a job quite like that. I was intrigued and asked her what she studied. She said she studied materials science and engineering while she was in college. I, at the time, had no idea what that was. But when I started to look it up and learn about the different research areas materials science had to offer, I knew I wanted to try this and learn about it more. 

What do you find fascinating about your field of study? The flexibility of it. I love how interdisciplinary the concepts in materials science can get. It’s not just chemistry, its chemistry with physics and some geometry while understanding biology. That's magical to me.

Why is education important to you? Education should be important to everyone, it gives people the tools to develop their own community and exchange ideas. I am so thankful that I have been blessed with opportunities to learn from so many different and amazing people. 

How do you hope your WPI experience helps you change the world? I hope I'm able to create a project that makes a difference.

How do you like to unwind? I really love eating and cooking. Sometimes I'll bake something while watching Food Network and judge my food like the competitors.

Jocelyn Petitto, Presidential Fellow

When Jocelyn found a path that suited her, her career outlook fell into place. Eventually, she hopes to inspire others through teaching and encouraging more women to work in STEM fields.

Hometown: Boston, Massachusetts

Field of Study: PhD candidate, bioinformatics and computational biology (BCB)

Why did you want to come to WPI? I’ve always found WPI to be a welcoming environment that encourages creative solutions to problems. Everyone is involved in research and the distinctions between departments seem more a formality than anything. I attended the Frontiers program in high school and, ever since, WPI has been a place I held in high regard.  

What was your aha moment when you realized this was your path? Have you ever seen that meme with the expected path drawn as a straight line and the actual path is a tangled mess with an arrow pointing at the goal at the end? That is an accurate depiction of my life. I have spent a lot of time wandering down different paths and having the opposite aha moment—this is not the right fit for me.

Reading about the research being done in Professor Korkin’s lab was an aha moment … finally, a field of study that combines all the things I enjoy learning about at an institution where I’ve always felt at home.

My biggest aha moment was sitting with my supervisor at the MDPH, describing how I was going to perform a set of data manipulations and asking her a slew of questions about the disease I was studying as they related to the constraints I was using. When she pointed out that the questions I was asking was why she put me on the project, it occurred to me this was what I get to do as a career. How many people frame their career as something they “get to do?” I don’t know, but I am really glad to be one of them.

What do you find fascinating about your field of study? The fascinating thing, to me, about bioinformatics as well as computational biology is the lack of proverbial box. There are all these datasets available and traditionally, standard methods of analysis are applied to come to conclusions that are fairly limited. The techniques used in both are look to stretch the boundaries of how data is looked at, what associations are made, and what can be modeled.

Why is education important to you? I want to know how everything works, so learning is something intrinsic to who I am. While I have some confidence in my ability to teach myself many things, that does not mean I would understand them as well as I could if I had the opportunity to discuss them. Learning from and with other people, education, lends itself to deeper understanding.

How do you hope your WPI experience helps you change the world? As much as I hope the research I am involved in changes the world, the scope of that will likely be narrow. I hope my WPI experience helps me implement change through teaching.

I would like to inspire young people to look curiously at their environment and experience the joy of discovery. Specifically, I would like to encourage other women to enter STEM fields. WPI offers many opportunities for young people to engage in scientific exploration and I hope I can bring about change by being a part of that effort.

Best piece of advice you ever followed? “Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire

My mentor said this to me one day while I was struggling with the minute details of a project. It wasn’t the first time I’d been given advice along these lines, but this particular phrasing really stuck with me. I tend to get so wrapped up in getting everything just so that it can hinder progress. I’ve changed a lot about how I approach projects (and life) for the better as a result.

How do you like to unwind? I ride my horse. I also enjoy spending time with my dogs, drawing, and going on spontaneous adventures.  

Janelle Vultaggio, Presidential Fellow

Despite a commitment to biology and a deep love of learning, Janelle wasn’t sure where her path would take her. Lab time at Harvard Medical School that changed her mind started her on a journey to WPI.

Hometown: Tewksbury, Massachusetts

Field of study/specialization: PhD candidate, biology and biotechnology; BS in Biology from Providence College; MS in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Brandeis University; three years' work experience as a research assistant in the Systems Biology Department at Harvard Medical School.

Why did you want to come to WPI? I was first drawn to WPI because of an interest in the work of Professor Scarlet Shell's lab on infectious diseases, I became even more intrigued by the school during my interview. I felt a real passion for science from all of the faculty I met and saw that there was potential for guidance and one-on-one advising that I may not have received at some of the larger institutions who accepted me.

What was your aha moment when you realized this was your path? Unlike many, I did not feel the aha moment until later in my academic journey. I started in the field of biology as a pre-medical student but quickly realized that pure biology and not the medical field was for me.

It was not until working at Harvard Medical School in the Systems Biology Department under the advisement of Dr. Marc Kirschner, Dr. Leon Peshkin, and Dr. Johan Paulsson that I felt a real aha moment. Being given opportunities that most only dream of, I found myself in a position where I never wanted to leave the laboratory. I would spend late nights working well into the morning hours to finish experiments. I felt compelled to work as much as I could on projects and knew that this was my purpose. With this newfound purpose and guidance of my advisors, I understood I needed to apply to a graduate program where I could further indulge in science.

What do you find fascinating about your field of study? (as well as) How you hope your WPI experience helps you change the world?

I find studying infectious diseases to be fascinating in general, but I unquestionably have a passion and fascination with Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB). I believe by understanding mycobacterium we can begin to challenge this contagious disease. The more we educate ourselves about mycobacterium, the more insight we can have on this devastating disease.

Why is education important to you? As a first-generation college student, my parents and grandparents instilled in me the importance of education. As the daughter of a mechanic and caregiver, my family wanted to make sure that I received every opportunity they did not have themselves. I found myself drawn to education at an early age with a love of learning. I have always been the student in class asking questions, eager to learn and understand more. There are many things in life that can be taken away, but no one can take away your knowledge and education.

Best piece of advice you ever followed? I am not entirely sure who told me this, but I have always found it extremely useful. "Surround yourself with people more intelligent than you and better at your job than you." By doing this, I discover myself working harder and achieving more than I thought was ever possible. I have been able to learn from the people around me and push myself to be the absolute best I can be.

How do you like to unwind? I love running, boxing and kickboxing, cycling (indoor and outdoor), yoga, and—if not exercising—curling up and reading a good book. I also immensely enjoy my work volunteering at RARA (Recreational Adult Resource Association), an organization that provides social, recreational, and educational opportunities to developmentally delayed individuals and their families.

Brittany Gradel, Presidential Fellow    

Brittany finds the intricacies of computer science are like puzzle pieces that in the end build something useful. With some teaching experience as an undergrad at the University of Delaware, she knows teaching as a professor is something in her future. Before heading to grad school, she spent years in industry working for Microsoft.

Hometown: I come from the outskirts of a small Pennsylvania town called Pottstown, which is somewhere in between Philadelphia and Lancaster county. I've also lived in Newark, in Delaware, and more recently in Bellevue, Washington.

Field of study/specialization: PhD candidate, computer science—I am currently working on novel forms of biometric authentication.

Why did you want to come to WPI? I started looking here because I was interested in security, and we have a very good department for that here. I decided to come because of a conversation I had with my advisor. His research was fascinating and he was really passionate about what he did. I came here because I wanted to work with him, and he's been a wonderful research advisor. 

What was your aha moment when you realized this was your path? I think it was less one big aha moment and more a bunch of little decisions. I became a research assistant in the summer of my freshman year of undergraduate school. I really liked it and started getting involved in other projects. That started me wanting to go to graduate school eventually.

What do you find fascinating about your field of study? What I love about CS is how much it is like a puzzle. I also love how the way you have to think and design is very abstract, but you end up working on these very concrete little pieces and really build something by the end.

Why is education important to you? I think learning is very important in any form, whether it is formal education or not. For me and others like me, formal education is a particularly effective method for learning things.

How do you hope your WPI experience helps you change the world? That's a very tall order. I don't want to change the world, I just want to be able to contribute research to the world that will make at least one person happier, healthier, or safer. 

Best piece of advice you ever followed? The best piece of advice I've gotten in grad school has been from my advisor while I was stressed out: "Go watch a movie." Sometimes you just need to relax and not worry about the five billion different things you should be doing. 

"Don't get married and start grad school at the same time" is another excellent piece of life advice, but I didn't take that one, so it doesn't count.

How do you like to unwind? Playing board games, dancing, spending time with friends and with my husband, cuddling with my cat, and eating. 

- By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil