Karen Vaughn, a graduating senior from Case Western Reserve University, faces a tough decision as a new graduate. Having received two major awards to support her graduate education at the University of California at Berkeley, Vaughn will have to decide between accepting the National Science Foundation Fellowship or the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.
Both awards support graduate education to help boost the number of people going into the sciences. The NSF award provides tuition and a living stipend of a total of approximately $43,000 annually for the next three years.
The senior from Pittsburgh received her bachelor's degree in engineering physics with a minor in German during commencement on Sunday, May 18.
She joins a group of engineering physics graduates who have received the prestigious NSF honor. Other recent NSF Fellows from Case Western Reserve are Mark Winkler (2005), who received an award during his first year at Harvard University and Amy Orsborn (2008), who also is at UC-Berkeley.
"Karen is an outstanding student with strong interests in both physics and engineering," said Kenneth Singer, professor of physics and director of the engineering physics program. "Karen also is active in the program, serving as the undergraduate representative on the curriculum committees for both physics and engineering."
Vaughn came to the university as a transfer student from Grove City College in Pennsylvania. She says she chose Case Western Reserve for its opportunities to participate in undergraduate research projects and has spent the last two years working with physics professor Charles Rosenblatt's research group on the study of liquid crystals.
The Rosenblatt group's research project examined ways to control the liquid crystal orientation on a surface by controlling the "pre-tilt" angle, with the ultimate goal of achieving this on a pixel-by-pixel basis using ink-jet technology.
"If we are successful, we will be able to develop new types of switchable optical gratings for purposes of laser beam steering and optical communications," said Rosenblatt.
Like Singer, Rosenblatt praised Vaughn's contributions to his research group.
"Although Karen did not invent the idea, she did nearly all of the hands-on work and made adjustments 'on the fly' to make the project successful," he said. "She worked in the capacity similar to an advanced graduate student—and this was when she was only a junior."
Vaughn's work was recognized as the lead author on the Applied Physics Letter journal article, "Continuous control of liquid crystal pretilt angle from homeotropic to planar."
For her senior capstone project, Vaughn designed a microelectrical mechanical system (MEMS) resonator and tested the use of silicon carbide as a potential material for the resonator. She worked on the research with Mehran Mehregany, Goodrich Professor of Engineering Innovation at the Case School of Engineering and one of the pioneers of MEMS research. She plans to continue that area of research when she heads to Berkeley in the fall where she will pursue her interests in MEMS and optoelectronics.
While engineering research takes up much of her time, Vaughn has found time to continue developing her skills as a fencer and participated in the Midwestern Conference Championship. She also spends her off-campus time snow skiing in winter and water skiing in summer and thinks the two sports might translate into surfing if she has a chance to try it during her studies not far from the Pacific Ocean.
Since childhood, Vaughn said never doubted she would go into the sciences.
"I grew up in a science-minded family," she said, adding that her father is an engineer with several patents on inventions and an uncle is a chemist.
Having fun with her father, she recalls how he conducted an experiment in the kitchen using the car battery to show the Vaughn children how to create an electromagnet and another one growing bean seeds in different soil and amounts of water to track growth.
"I eventually want to work in industry and invent things. That would be fun," she said.
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