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Five WVU students named prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellows

Graphic image, text in top corner reads '2024 NSF graduate research fellowship with portrait headshots of Austin Braniff, Kara Cunningham, Courtney Glenn, Ashley Martsen-Poulin, Megan Weaver

Five WVU students have been named National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows. They are (clockwise from top left) Austin Braniff, Kara Cunningham, Megan Weaver, Ashley Martsen-Poulin and Courtney Glenn. (WVU Graphic)

Five West Virginia University students have joined an elite group of researchers who’ve been awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a program aimed at supporting graduate education in STEM-based fields.

Story by WVU Today
Photos by WVU Today


This year’s winners are Austin Braniff, of Mineral Wells; Kara Cunningham, of Poca; Courtney Glenn, of Semmes, Alabama; Ashley Martsen-Poulin, of Otis, Massachusetts; and Megan Weaver, of Morgantown.

All five students are actively or will be pursuing research-based master’s or doctoral degrees.

Fellows are provided professional development opportunities, in addition to a three-year annual stipend of $37,000 and a $16,000 education allowance for tuition. The NSF states the purpose of the fellowship program is to help ensure the quality, vitality and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States.

Austin Braniff — Safer, smarter systems for chemicals and energy
According to Austin Braniff, “intelligently handling the complexities of industrial systems for processing and producing chemicals and energy can lead to improvements in areas like efficiency, sustainability and safety.”

Braniff studies the design, optimization and control of chemical and energy systems with his advisor, assistant professor Yuhe Tian. His NSF fellowship will enable research that “holds the promise of preventing safety incidents in the chemicals industry, while making energy production more sustainable.”

He’ll conduct that research in the chemical engineering graduate program of the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. As a WVU undergraduate in the same department, Braniff served as an ambassador for the West Virginia Science Public Outreach Team and he said communicating STEM topics to youth is still a priority.

“This provides an opportunity to create materials that introduce K-12 students to advanced computing techniques. I want to inspire other first-generation STEM students to believe they can prosper in higher education.”

Kara Cunningham — Keeping tap water trustworthy
Kara Cunningham remembers being 14 years old in Poca and living through the water crisis of 2014.

“I was unable to drink, shower or cook with the tap water in my home or go to school for over a week,” she said. “It’s one of the driving factors that led me to pursue an environmental engineering degree to provide solutions for water treatment and to advocate for clean drinking water for all. As a first-generation student working in a male-dominant field, I’m ecstatic to receive the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for my research on drinking water treatment.”

Cunningham is now enrolled in a direct PhD program in the Wadsworth Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her undergraduate degree is also from WVU — she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering in 2022, the same year she founded the WVU student chapter of the American Water Works Association, of which she is still president.

Cunningham’s work is focused on giving the water industry a better understanding of “ozone-biofiltration” drinking water treatment.

“Ozone biofiltration uses ozone gas and microorganisms to filter contaminants out of water. It can provide the public with quality drinking water, using less energy and fewer chemicals than other advanced water treatment systems,” she said.

“Declining water quality is a global issue, so it’s imperative for water utilities to implement advanced water treatment technologies to meet safety standards. This is why advancing the science of water treatment is my passion.” 

Courtney Glenn — A chemical reaction
After earning her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of South Alabama, Courtney Glenn knew the next logical step was WVU. It was the only place, she said, that encouraged her to pursue independent research in two of her top fields of interest — organic chemistry and chemical education.

Since arriving, she’s worked on two projects, one being part of assistant professor Margaret Hilton’s research group in the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. Hilton’s team focuses on providing an innovative, streamlined approach to organic synthesis and drug discovery, which could improve human health among the general population.

Glenn is also a member of assistant professor Oluwatobi Odeleye’s chemical education research group, which studies how students learn and perceive chemistry. Glenn has co-authored a paper with Odeleye that highlights factors that influence perception of chemistry.

“The results showed the course structure and course instructor were the two most influential factors affecting students’ perception towards chemistry,” Glenn said. “The research is meant to assist instructors in developing their teaching pedagogy and course structure, which could ultimately increase the number of students pursuing chemistry as a career.”

Glenn, who earned a Ruby Scholars Graduate Fellowship in 2022, has her sights set on becoming a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution.

“I have a passion for teaching and I love introducing undergraduate students to chemistry concepts and how they apply to real-world settings,” she said. “I give credit to my fabulous instructors in general chemistry for sparking my interest, and I want to do the same for my future students. As a first-generation student and a female in chemistry, I also want to initiate outreach opportunities teaching the youth and underrepresented groups in my community about chemistry to broaden representation within the discipline.”

Ashley Martsen-Poulin — The sky’s the limit
Ashley Martsen-Poulin spends her time looking for variations in the shape of pulses seen from pulsars, which are magnetized rotating neutron stars that emit beams of radiation.

Those endeavors aided in a cosmic breakthrough showing evidence of low-frequency gravitational waves in 2023. That result emerged from 15 years of data acquired by the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, or NANOGrav, of which Martsen-Poulin is a member.

“The impact of the research is the furthering of human knowledge and pushing the boundaries of what we understand about the most extreme objects in our universe,” she said.

Martsen-Poulin never envisioned herself pursuing a PhD. After completing homeschooling, she got a job as a cashier at 17. But when she saw a co-worker do chemistry homework during shifts, inspiration hit her.

She would earn her undergraduate degree at Rochester Institute of Technology in physics while minoring in astronomy, math, English and Italian. She wanted to continue studying pulsars so she came to the WVU Eberly College to work with Maura McLaughlin, an international leader in pulsar astronomy who is credited as one of the discoverers of fast radio bursts.

“She (McLaughlin) guides me on my scientific research and professional development for the field of astrophysics,” Martsen-Poulin said. “But also she’s a supportive person who values my mental and physical health and is always encouraging me to prioritize a healthy balance between my personal life and professional life.” 

After completing her doctorate, Martsen-Poulin, also a Ruby Scholars Graduate Fellow, wants to continue working with NANOGrav on pulsar astronomy and pursue a career either in academia or at a radio observatory.

Megan Weaver — Engineering elite shoes for the common foot
Megan Weaver said she believes carbon fiber shoes can help people stand and walk more comfortably.

“Currently, carbon fiber is mainly used in running shoes and is shown to reduce energy expenditure by 4% in elite marathon runners due to its capacity to store and return energy. I believe there is a huge potential in this field waiting to be explored,” Weaver said.

“I want to create shoes that allow people to be comfortable and walk faster with less energy expenditure. Carbon fiber holds the potential to increase mobility for the general population by enabling them to walk longer and faster.”

The shoe fits — Weaver was a member of the cross country and track and field teams at WVU.

From Morgantown, Weaver will graduate from WVU in May with her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and will pursue a biomedical engineering doctorate in a PhD program run jointly by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.

She’ll try to understand how carbon fiber modifies bones and joints as people walk. The NSF funding will support a study in which subjects will walk through a continuous X-ray machine that captures and analyzes the movements of their bones. That will teach Weaver how carbon fiber modifies the foot and how stacking or thinning certain areas of carbon fiber could affect an insole.

During the application process for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the recipients received support from the WVU ASPIRE Office, which assists students applying for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships.



Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

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