Rowan Engineering student lands Goldwater Scholarship

Rowan Engineering student lands Goldwater Scholarship

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Kelsey DeFrates lives for research.

The rising senior is pursuing her passion for engineering in medicine at Rowan University in the Biomedical Engineering program and dreams of creating biocompatible materials to regenerate lost or damaged tissues or develop biosensors.

And this spring, she was awarded the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship that will help her realize her dreams.  

The Goldwater Scholarship is widely considered the most prestigious award in the United States for undergraduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and is awarded to only 240 sophomores or juniors across the United States.  According to the Goldwater Foundation, Goldwater Scholars are selected based on academic merit from natural science, mathematics and engineering students nominated from among 2,000 colleges and universities nationwide.  Recipients were evaluated based on their academic and research accomplishments and potential for success toward advanced degrees. The Foundation awards $48 million in scholarships, and Goldwater Scholars go on to become the country’s leading scientists, mathematicians and engineers, according to the organization.

“Kelsey joins a very select group of previous Goldwater winners and accomplished scientists and engineers, and she represents the high-achieving and motivated students who comprise our student body,” said Dr. Mark Byrne, founding department head and professor of Biomedical Engineering.

DeFrates applied for the Goldwater in December, using research from Dr. Xiao Hu’s engineering clinic course, which is an intensive, cutting-edge research experience during students’ junior and senior years. Her individual research project with Hu, a physics and biomedical engineering professor, focuses on developing materials from natural sources like silk and cellulose from plant walls for use in medical applications.

“Our project is unique because these materials are usually hard to make,” said DeFrates. “We put different amounts of silk and cellulose together to make materials with different properties for different parts of the body.”

Her project utilizes ionic liquids, a special class of chemical with a strong, ionic bond, as a solvent, providing a reusable, “green” component other harsher solvents do not offer.

The idea to use ionic liquids came from DeFrates’s research with chemistry professor Dr. Timothy Vaden. As a freshman, DeFrates volunteered with Vaden to study how different proteins change when placed in ionic liquids. Now his research assistant, DeFrates took what she learned with Vaden and applied it to Ho’s research.

During her time at Audubon (N.J.) High School, DeFrates wanted to be a doctor, but quickly found her passion for the “hard science and math” behind the medicine in chemistry, physics and calculus, leading her to enroll as an engineering student in the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering. She prefers the biomedical major because she said work in that field directly benefits patients.

“One project has the capacity to change thousands of lives, and I’m able to actually see that being done,” DeFrates said.

In the future, the 21-year-old plans to obtain her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and wants to be a leader in academia, becoming a professor at a research university.