Four CWRU Students and Alumni Receive Prestigious Fellowship

This year, four alumni and students from or in the Department of Physics received the prestigious NSF Graduate Fellowship. 

“Having four NSF Graduate Fellowships associated with CWRU physics in one year reflects very positively on our department, our undergraduate and graduate academic programs, and on the many mentors and research supervisors who have guided these students while here at CWRU,” Glenn Starkman, co-chair of the department said. “But most of all, it reflects the extraordinary quality and dedication of our students—not just those who were awarded this very competitive fellowship but all who did the hard work to apply.”

Current student, Ayesha Gonzales, and alumni Joshua Chiel (CWR ‘20), Rebecca Lalk (CWR ‘20) and Theodore Letsou (CWR ‘19) were awarded this year.

Rebecca Lalk (CWR ‘20)

This year, Rebecca Lalk is completing a year of post-bachelor’s research at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT), which is a user facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Her research focuses on memristors, which are proposed electrical components, like resistors or capacitors, that have multiple resistance states and memory properties. “Memory properties” manifest as hysteresis in the current-voltage characteristics of these devices.

“To me, this award is proof of how everything I learned from classes at CWRU, through research at CWRU, and over summer internships at LANL have prepared me to produce and execute research ideas that contribute value to scientific discussion,” Lalk said.

When she looks back at her time at CWRU, she fondly remembers the great faculty and staff that supported her. In addition to wanting students to learn the course material, she found it valuable that her professors also helped her understand how it would appear in her career long term. 

Since her freshman year, Professor Kathleen Kash, M. Roger Clapp University Professor, and Professor Harsh Mathur encouraged her to participate in research projects. 

“I think that the early start in research and dedicated mentorship by my research advisors helped a lot in my understanding of what a good research project would be,” she said.

In fall 2021, she will begin the Materials Science and Engineering PhD program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, working with Professor Zhuravleva in the Scintillation Materials Research Center. This group does materials discovery for scintillators, which are materials that absorb X-rays and gamma rays and emit them in the visible spectrum. This research has applications in MRIs and nonproliferation research, and it will relate to work she did in the Kash Lab during her time at CWRU. 

“I am excited to start grad school,” Lalk said. “And I am also very much looking forward to all the great hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains.”

Joshua Chiel (CWR ‘20)

Joshua Chiel got involved in research the summer before he started at CWRU with Professor Glenn Starkman, co-chair of the department. Throughout his undergraduate career, he maintained his interest and engagement in research projects. 

“This was a privilege,” he said. “And was the strongest preparation for my application for the NSF grant.”

Chiel currently focuses on applying non-equilibrium statistical mechanics concepts and quantum control techniques to condensed matter and biophysical systems at the University of Maryland.

“To me, this [NSF Grant] is a game changer,” Chiel said. “It gives me the flexibility to continue to collaborate with some of my advisors from CWRU on numerous exciting projects, and to have the opportunity to explore additional collaborations with researchers at UMD and its affiliated institutions.”

Chiel gives a lot of credit for his passion and knowledge to his overall experience in the Department of Physics along with guidance from his research advisors—Harsh Mathur, Glenn Starkman and Michael Hinczewski.

“Teachers and advisors authentic care about their students manifests in their patience and kindness with students’ questions and concerns,” Chiel expressed. “I thrived in their courses, which gave me a strong background in both physics and math, and helped position me to apply for the NSF grant.”

Chiel feels an immense sense of pride for Case Western Reserve thanks to the people that he was “profoundly fortunate to learn from and with”.

Theodore Letsou (CWR ‘19)

Now studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Theodore Letsou’s research can be defined broadly as photonics, the study of light and how light interacts with different materials. At CWRU, he conducted research under Giuseppe Strangi, where the duo designed so-called optical “meta-materials”, which are artificially created materials that manipulate different properties of light for applications in energy harvesting, chemical sensing and biomedical detection. 

“My mentors in the physics/engineering departments, notably Professor Giuseppe Strangi, Professor Michael Hinczewski and Professor Mohan Sankaran, are the reason I am pursuing graduate education,” he said. “Their willingness to let me pursue research at such a young age is something I am truly grateful for. I owe the award to them.”

He notes two specific things that are a strong part of his CWRU memory–the professors and the students. He never had to second guess where to turn to for help when he needed it. Whether students needed a concept explained in more detail after class or wanted to explore more about how that material related to real-world scenarios, the professors in the department were there to help. 

“CWRU professors do an amazing job of ‘passing the knowledge’ to the next generation,” he said.

And when there was a late night of studying, fellow students were patient, considerate and selfless, helping him to understand a homework problem or discuss a topic more in depth. 

“The fellowship is more a reflection of the incredible mentors, peers and classmates I had at CWRU than anything else,” he said.

Ayesha Gonzales

Second-year PhD student, Ayesha Gonzales, didn’t always know she had a passion for physics. After considering careers in writing and psychology, Gonzales found herself uninterested in the material and less excited about readings than she was about other subjects. It was the need to create equations to solve problems in physics that caught her attention.

“It took me a while to figure out that physics was my dream,” Gonzales said. “But once I did, it felt so obvious that I didn’t even try holding onto other things I thought I should do.”

Gonzales had this realization while attending the University of Texas Physics Symposium during her senior year of high school, but faced hurdles when her high school counselor, parents and peers questioned her commitment. And, at the time she was applying for college, financial restrictions led her to enroll at St. Edward’s University, an institution that doesn’t offer physics as a major. 

Despite all of this, Gonzales remained undeterred. She made the decision to major in math, figuring she could use those skills to pursue her physics career down the road.

Now, she works in Associate Professor Michael Hinczewski’s lab, using machine learning methods to build a pipeline that counts sickle cells and has won a prestigious fellowship. 

“I was excited to prove everyone wrong who thought that I would end up changing my mind,” Gonzales said.