Driven to discover: Research prowess, community service earn ASU grad Fulbright Scholarship


Portrait of ASU grad Danika Kartchner.

A Fulbright Scholarship will enable recent ASU chemical engineering graduate Danika Kartchner to pursue an energy engineering master’s degree in an international, cross-cultural learning environment at a major university in Taiwan.

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If in future years Danika Kartchner’s name shows up in the news under headlines heralding technological breakthroughs achieved by advances in chemical, materials or energy engineering, Arul Mozhy Varman won’t be surprised.

Kartchner is self-motivated and willing to put in the work to overcome challenges, and has a genuine passion to continuously learn and contribute to the development of green technologies that could help bring about a more sustainable world.

That’s how Varman, an assistant professor of chemical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, describes Kartchner, a recent ASU chemical engineering graduate whose accomplishments to date have now earned her a prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Program scholarship.

Much of the work that has helped make Kartchner a Fulbright Scholar was done in Varman’s Synthetic and Systems Biology Laboratory, where she has been on a team of student researchers developing engineered microbial systems for the sustainable production of chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals using renewable resources.

Kartchner has been the “rare undergraduate who quickly adapted to the rigors of the research world,” says Varman, who teaches in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the seven Fulton Schools. Her report based on research in his lab won the school’s Outstanding Honors Thesis Award.

Kartchner explored producing bio-based industrial solvents from renewable resources that would reduce reliance on crude oil through a process that “has the potential to become a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative” than current processes, she says.

Varman deems the project “a classic example of integrating biological and chemical engineering approaches toward finding innovative solutions.”

Potential benefits of cross-cultural learning environment

Her research projects have won two awards from the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, a program that enhances undergraduates’ education by providing hands-on lab experience and independent, thesis-based research.

She also earned a Moeur Award, which recognizes students for achieving a 4.0 GPA in their undergraduate studies and meeting additional academic criteria.

Kartchner’s exceptional achievements are why later this summer she will begin using support from the Fulbright Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in energy engineering at the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, best known for its leading engineering, computer science and medical education programs and research.

There, Kartchner will have the opportunity to fulfill the expectation that Fulbright Scholarship recipients will gain new perspectives through academics and research in a cross-cultural environment. The Fulbright organization’s overarching goal is for students to help promote mutual understanding and cooperation that will boost the stature of the U.S. in prominent international educational and research communities.

In partnership with more than 140 countries, the Fulbright program offers students valuable opportunities to do graduate study, conduct research or teach English abroad, while experiencing other nations’ cultures by working, living and learning with people in the host countries.

Kartchner foresees the experience providing “a great opportunity to explore many more things that will help me focus my career goals.”

She’s hoping the switch to an energy engineering degree program will expand the range of her expertise, preparing her to productively engage in efforts that will yield impactful engineering innovations.

“It will be a whole new experience with a new group of people to work with, and I’m excited about what I’ll be learning,” she says. “Everyone I’ve talked to who knows about studying in other countries says that even though there are challenges, you really get a lot of different and important insights.”

Danika Kartchner at Fulton Undergrduate Research Symposium

Danika Kartchner, pictured at the Fall 2021 Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative Symposium, aspires to apply her knowledge of chemical and materials science and engineering to make advances in energy engineering. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

 

Valuable community service and industry internship experiences

It was more than Kartchner’s academic record and research at ASU that led to the Fulbright program opportunity. Her activities outside of studies and lab work on campus helped make her a worthy candidate for the scholarship.

As a Helios Scholar, she interned with the Translational Genomics Research Institute to conduct medical studies on pulmonary fibrosis. She was also a student intern with the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Maryland, working on an additive manufacturing project to purify nitrogen, along with related projects.

Kartchner assisted with operations of the Refugee Education and Clinic Team for people with refugee status and asylum seekers in Maricopa County. She was also the leader of two Fulton Schools Engineering Projects in Community Service, or EPICS, ventures and a peer mentor for first-year students in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College.

In one of the EPICS projects, she helped design and develop assistive technology to help a quadriplegic teenager better control her wheelchair, as well as perform other tasks. Kartchner also contributed to a Biomedical Engineering Society project to create activities for patients in children’s hospitals.

Kartchner was involved in work for the Arizona Game and Fish Department to develop a voltage monitor to help prevent electrical problems in a hydropower turbine energy technology system the agency uses.

During the past two school years, she has also been building her engineering skills in a part-time job as a process engineering intern with Intel. Kartchner works in the planar division, which involves refining the architecture of computer chips to provide optimal systems performance.

Abundant abilities raise expectations of future achievement

Two chemical engineering doctoral students with whom Kartchner has collaborated in Varman’s lab have no doubt she has the experience, skills and determination to be successful in advanced studies and research in Taiwan.

“Danika shows a lot of maturity and always remains calm when things go wrong in the lab,” says Apurv Mhatre. “She has handled research projects on her own, designed her own experiments and worked independently most of the time, which is rare for an undergraduate. She is good at multitasking and she does not give up when she is not getting good results.”

“A bright, intelligent and adept student, which makes her one of the fastest learners I’ve ever seen,” is Nima Hajinajaf’s succinct description of Kartchner’s strengths as a researcher. “She is committed and encouraging, takes responsibility for her tasks and meets deadlines,” he adds.

For 11 of the past 12 years, ASU has been a leading producer of recipients of Fulbright U.S. Student awards and ranks second overall among public universities, according to  ASU’s Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement. Kartchner is one of at least eight Fulton Schools graduates who have been awarded the scholarship in recent years.

Given the assessments lauding her numerous and formidable abilities by Varman, and her collaorators in the lab, it seems all but certain she will strengthen ASU’s standing among the ranks of impressive Fulbright award winners.

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