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ChemE student researcher scores prestigious NSF fellowship

Senior chemical engineering student Cayla Miller '15 has been awarded the 2015 National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship -- one of the most prestigious awards in the nation for outstanding student researchers pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees in science and engineering.

Since diving into an undergraduate research project in her sophomore year with her advisor, Dr. Jeetain Mittal, Cayla has never looked back. Along the way, she's developed a keen interest in molecular modelling, as well as designs on a future in academic research and teaching.

Cayla will pursue her doctoral degree in chemical engineering at Stanford University in the Fall of 2015. Miller plans to continue on working on biologically relevant problems, examining the interface between biology, chemistry, and engineering: essentially looking to apply engineering principles to biological problems. However, she plans on engaging in experimental research to expand upon her computational modelling experience with Lehigh's Biophysics & Soft Matter Group, directed by Mittal.

The NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship provides three years of stipend and graduation tuition support for individuals who have demonstrated potential for significant achievement in science and engineering. An important component of the selection process is not only outstanding academic record, but also clear demonstration of research productivity and future potential. Approximately 2000 fellowships are awarded each year across all areas of science and engineering.

"All of my research at Lehigh has been completely computational, but going into graduate school, I want to transition into doing more experimental work," says Cayla. "I feel like right now is the time to broaden my horizons and get experience in another area."

From Industry to Research
Coming into Lehigh University four years ago, Cayla didn't know that she wanted to be a researcher. Quite to the contrary, Miller began working on research only after one of her professors suggested that she look into it.

"I actually got lucky and stumbled into research blindly without really knowing much about it," said Miller. "At the end of my freshman year, my fluid mechanics professor suggested that I get involved with research and suggested talking to Jeetain Mittal. So I met with him, and I was instantly enthralled by his research."

Miller began working on a project using computational simulation to decode or investigate structural characteristics of intrinsically disordered proteins. She picked it up quickly, and by the end of her first year, she was already the dual first author, along with a grad student, on a published paper.

"Since the simulations had already been run, I was able to jump straight in to the data analysis phase," recalls Cayla. "It was really incredible to see a project come to fruition so quickly."

That next summer, Cayla went on to try her hand in industry, working as an intern for Merck. But by the beginning of the fall semester, she found herself back in the labs at Lehigh, working on a project regarding interactions among short peptides and membranes. And this past summer, she was running her own project. Cayla was able to work fulltime at her research, and got the valuable experience of designing, implementing and completing a project on her own.

"This past research project has been a really great experience because it gave me the skills to lead my own project from start to finish." Cayla says. "It was completely liberating to be able to design my own project, and it really helped to show me how much I've grown since my first one."

The Lehigh Life
Outside of the lab, Cayla has been involved with campus clubs and activities such as Green Action, Society of Women Engineers, and the David and Lorraine Undergraduate Research Symposium. She even started a Lehigh knitting club last year.

With each year at Lehigh and increasing commitments, Cayla has found that one of the most important things that she's done at Lehigh is to give opportunities and activities a chance to capture her interest.

"If you think you might want to do something, you just have to try it out," suggests Cayla "Learning what you don't like is just as valuable as learning what you do like. And if you don't like something at first, stick with it. You might decide something is not for you, but it's worth the experience either way."

Otherwise, she continues, she would not have discovered her love of the lab.
"By far, research has been one of the most important and influential things that I've done while at Lehigh." said Cayla.

-Talia Dunyak '16 is a student-writer with the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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