Rossin College PhD students Mari-Therese Burton (materials science and engineering) and Nicole Malofsky ’19 ’21G (bioengineering) have been selected for prestigious national STEM research fellowships.

Malofsky, who is advised by Lesley Chow, an assistant professor of bioengineering and materials science and engineering, will receive support through the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). Beginning this summer, Malofsky will pursue her PhD in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. She will transition from her previous work in corneal tissue engineering to new research developing global health technologies. Malofsky looks forward to beginning this new chapter as she graduates Lehigh University with her master’s in bioengineering. 

Burton, who is advised by Martin Harmer, Alcoa Foundation Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, was selected for both the NSF GRFP and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program (NDSEG), which is offered by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Acceptance to both programs is confirmation of Burton’s outstanding academic and research efforts; however, as she can accept only one, she has chosen to continue her work on high-entropy alloys at Lehigh as an NDSEG Fellow.  

“It is truly outstanding that two of our engineering students have had their efforts recognized with such prestigious and highly selective fellowships,” says Sabrina Jedlicka, an associate professor of bioengineering and materials science and engineering and the Rossin College’s associate dean for academic affairs. “Honors like these speak to the talent and potential of Mari-Therese and Nicole and are a testament to the quality and dedication of our students and their faculty mentors. We look forward to seeing more great things from both in the years to come!” 

Malofsky: Biomaterials for corneal regeneration

The NSF GRFP supports promising graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. Fellows receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, plus a three-year, $12,000 cost-of-education allowance paid to their respective institutions. Applicants must be undergraduate seniors or first-year or early second-year graduate students. 

“If you get [the NSF GRFP], you have the golden ticket,” says Malofsky, referencing the program’s long list of notable alumni, including numerous Nobel Prize winners, Google founder Sergey Brin, and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Since 1952, the program has funded more than 60,000 fellowships from over half a million applicants, with more than 70 percent of recipients completing their doctorates within 11 years.

Malofsky’s NSF GRFP proposal focused on her master's research expertise developing corneal tissue engineered biomaterials. Corneal blindness impacts over 10 million people worldwide; however, gold-standard donor tissue to restore corneal vision is limited by donor shortages and possible immune rejection. Existing biomaterials-based approaches to corneal regeneration fail to re-create the native tissue complexity critical for function. Malofsky’s work proposed the creation of a spatially functionalized biomaterial that would mimic the native corneal microenvironment to guide tissue regeneration and distinct corneal layer development in a single engineered construct. The regenerated cornea would have a broad societal impact by facilitating better vision restoration to treat corneal blindness and alleviate the need for donor tissue. If successful, Malofsky’s work would have a significant and positive impact on patient quality of life and health care overall. 

“Lehigh has been instrumental to my success as a researcher,” she says. “My experience has taught me how to assess problems, how to really dive deep, and how to harness that scientific curiosity.” Malofsky earned her undergraduate degree in bioengineering from the Rossin College in 2019, spent the past two years as a master’s student in the Chow Lab, and will now diversify her research portfolio as a member of the Haselton Lab at Vanderbilt. Her work will accelerate the development of global health technologies in a multidisciplinary research environment addressing the needs of patients and physicians in low-resource settings. 

“Having this fellowship can really give me those opportunities that I have been looking for in terms of expanding my research capacity and research depth, in addition to exploring new places and career opportunities,” she says. 

Burton: Applications for high-entropy alloys

For Burton, being selected for both the NSF GRFP and the NDSEG Fellowship Program is an “immense privilege” and a “huge honor.”  “I applied last year and didn’t get it, then I applied this year not thinking that I would get it either,” she says. “When the first one came in, I was so happy—and then after the second acceptance, I was astonished!” 

The NDSEG Fellowship Program promotes science and engineering education relevant to the DoD’s mission, encouraging promising students to pursue doctoral degrees in related disciplines. It is funded by the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. The three-year fellowship pays for the student’s full tuition and mandatory fees, provides a monthly stipend and funding to defray travel and health insurance costs, and matches each recipient with a DoD mentor. Since 1989, more than 4,000 students have received the fellowship from a pool of more than 60,000 applicants.

Burton researches alloy design for mechanical applications of high-entropy alloys (HEAs). It's a relatively new field of study—stemming from discoveries made in the past 20 years or so—and one that appeals to her because of its unknown and broad possibilities. 

HEAs are unique due to their comparative large number of elemental combinations. Other alloys usually contain one primary element mixed in combination with a few others. HEAs consist of five or more different elements, giving them distinctive and unprecedented properties (such as superior mechanical strength and hardness). Burton is investigating how to select components, compositions, and processing of HEAs based on the desired microstructure and properties for a given application. She says she’s especially excited about their potential use in aerospace engineering. 

“It is really interesting and there are lots of research paths we could go down—we don't really know what to expect,” she says.

Burton began her graduate studies at Lehigh in 2019, following the completion of her BS in materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. She credits her classes and advisors in the Rossin College with developing her ability to articulate her work and navigate the fellowship application process successfully.

“I have a huge support system here at Lehigh that has mentored me throughout my graduate career,” says Burton.

One key distinction that applies to both fellowships is that they are awarded to support the individual recipients, not the research itself. 

“The fellowships fund you as a person, not your project,” says Malofsky. 

The support gives the two rising stars the freedom to continue their scientific exploration without constraining requirements.

“It feels good to have your work recognized and understood,” says Burton. 

—Grace Cox is a student writer for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science

Nicole Malofsky

Nicole Malofsky ’19 ’21G (bioengineering)

Mari-Therese Burton

Mari-Therese Burton (materials science and engineering)