Grad Student Highlight


Grad Student Highlight

Each week, we highlight a graduate student to highlight their achievements and to bring a human touch to science that affects us all. Hear about their work in their own words in the episodes linked below.

Andrew Makdisi Ph.D. student studying civil engineering at the University of Washington

Andrew’s research is focused on understanding how soil liquefies during an earthquake. This effect can have disastrous consequences on infrastructure, such as buildings, dams, and gas pipelines. One cool thing about his research is that while it is deeply rooted in interesting theory, it has many practical effects that could save lives in the event of a natural disaster.

Check out his interview in the episode Does negative mass explain dark matter?

Anna Sheppard Ph.D. student studying electric propulsion in the Dept. of Aeronautics & Astronautics at the University of Washington

Anna’s is a legitimate rocket scientist who’s looking into new techniques for improving electric propulsion that could one day fly in space. Traditional electric propulsion thrusters that run using Noble Gases for propellants, however, Anna’s investigating whether molecular propellants could one day be used instead. If so, future space expeditions to places like Mars may someday use resources on the planet, like ammonia, as a propellant, enabling us to explore deeper into the solar system for longer periods of time.

Check out her interview in the episode How does an “ion plane” actually fly?

Justin Penn

Ph.D. student studying chemical oceanography at the University of Washington School of Oceanography

Justin’s research focuses on the mechanisms that drive changes in Earth’s climates. It turns out his models are so good, they could accurately account for the meteorological changes that wiped out nearly 95% of Earth’s species 250 million years ago! This research earned him a spot as top dawg–ahem, sorry, first author–on a coveted Science paper entitled “Temperature-dependent hypoxia explains biogeography and severity of end-Permian marine mass extinction” and published in Dec. 2018.

Check out his interview in the episode Did climate change cause the “Great Dying”?

Megan Raden @psych.and.coding

Ph.D. student studying Cognitive Science.

Megan’s research is searching for the cognitive processes and mechanisms that contribute to and are necessary for successful problem solving. She’s asking, “What enables high achievers to find problems to difficult solutions? And what’s preventing low achievers from finding those same solutions?” Further, she recommends looking into cognitive science for anyone who teaches or is just looking to improve their problem solving skills!

Check out her interview in the episode Could you prove you’re human in one word?

EL Meszaros @IAStranger

Ph.D. student at Brown University in the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity.

EL’s research studies the formation, application, transmission, and impact of mathematics, astronomy, and physics in the ancient world, particularly ancient Mesopotamia and the Greek and Latin speaking world. She entered this field by looking at how the language that we use to describe science, particularly metaphor, changes over time and in translation, in the hopes that these changes can tell us something about how scientific concepts were understood in their time. Situating ancient science like this also sheds light on how widespread scientific understanding was and how it overlaps and interacts with other ways of understanding the world.

Check out her interview in the episode How hard was the InSight landing on Mars?

Mayrena Hernandez @mayrenaisamar

Ph.D. student in biomechanics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Maryena’s research builds off her background in athletic training to explore the processes of rehabilitation to better understand why lower extermity injuries occur, and how rehab can be used to reduce reoccurence. She also leverages her background in public health to investigate how socioeconomic status can influence sport specialization and health care equity. Her research has found that youth who are highly specialized in a single sport are 81% more likely to experience an over-use injury.

Check out her interview in the episode Is paralysis a thing of the past?

Susanna Harris @SusannaLHarris

Ph.D. student in Microbiology University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Susanna’s research seeks to understand how microbial communities and bacteria can protect plants and agriculture. Farmers have known for centuries that certain fields are better for raising crops, and in the the 1970’s researchers found that beneficial bacteria in the soil may be one reason for this. One issue though is that these beneficial bacteria don’t seem to perform as well outdoors as they do in the lab, and Susanna’s investigating why.

In addition to her research, Susanna is active in the SciCommunity (@thescicommunity) to connect science communicators on social media, and she has also founded the online group PhDepression (@ph_d_epression) to increase conversation and break the stigma of mental illness in academia.

Check out her interview in the episode Is Oumuamua an alien spacecraft?

Jacob Adams

Ph.D. student at MIT’s Nuclear Science & Engineering Department.

Jacob’s research is really cool (like, -400 degrees farenheit cool). At these very low temperatures, certain materials exhibit super conductivity, a state where their electrical resistance vanishes. Super conductivity has broad applications in research like nuclear fusion and even measuring small changes in the magnetic fields of neurons in your brain. Jacob’s research is investigating how to develop a micro cooling device that could bring these super cool temperatures to applications outside of the lab.

Check out his interview in the episode How many faces do you know?

Alex Barth @AlexTBarth

Ph.D. student studying inorganic chemistry at Cal Tech.

One of the most important chemical reactions for life is called nitrogen fixation, which is making ammonia out of nitrogen gas in the air. People do this industrially to make things like fertilizer, but it takes immense temperatures and pressures and consumes ~2% of the world energy consumption. Nature is able to do so in bacteria at completely ambient conditions, and Alex’s research is helping us to understand how!

Check out her interview in the episode Should we kill all the mosquitos?

Jazmine Benjamin @J_I_Benjamin

Biomedical science Ph.D. student in Dr. Elizabeth Sztul’s lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Jazmine studies membrane trafficing and protein degradation in the secratory pathway. By understanding these secratory pathways, Jazmine’s research can gain insight into how diseases present themselves differently in different people, allowing us to develop new medications and treatments. She loves biology because it’s the only science where multiplication is the same as division!

Check out her interview in the episode Can we terraform Mars?

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