Pursuing interdisciplinary research

Many of the Fulton Schools-affiliated NSF Graduate Research Fellows are choosing to pursue research in highly interdisciplinary topics, building upon their education in multiple disciplines and exploring topics that span engineering fields.

Rachael T. Kha brings an interdisciplinary background to her research, having earned bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and economics in addition to chemical engineering bachelor’s and master’s degrees from ASU.

“During undergrad, I also thought a lot about my interests in the humanities and social sciences, and whether or not the diversity of my academic background could be useful in whatever career I chose,” Kha says.

She was introduced to interdisciplinary research through her work with Professor Daniel Rivera, which focused on control systems applications for behavioral medicine.

“Dr. Rivera’s work in control systems allowed me to continue working within the engineering school while actively engaging with the ideas that I found interesting in other fields,” Kha says.

In the fall, she’s headed to MIT for its social and engineering systems doctoral program, which she selected because it was “interdisciplinary by nature, as students are required to take courses across engineering, computer science and social sciences, as well as probability and statistics,” Kha says.

Rachel Newton earned bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and computational mathematical sciences from ASU and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor. Now beginning her doctoral research into wind farm control optimization techniques, she has a great sense of confidence in her own abilities as a researcher, especially in interdisciplinary topics.

“I am motivated by interdisciplinary research,” Newton says, “and my focus area crosses two of the subdisciplines of electrical engineering that are most interesting to me, so it was a natural starting point for my graduate research.”

Fostering diversity

One goal of the NSF GRFP is to diversify STEM leadership. Many fellows bring diverse perspectives to their research and seek to make the benefits of engineering more accessible to underrepresented communities.

Kelsie Herzer discovered she was interested in social activism during her undergraduate years studying chemical engineering at the University of New Mexico. She found the environmental engineering graduate program at ASU combined her engineering background and passion for environmental and social justice.

The NSF GRFP will allow her to make more of an impact in her research, which focuses on bioremediation. She has already demonstrated the importance of her work in her first year of graduate work at ASU. While teaching an environmental microbiology course, Herzer added discussion on the topic of environmental racism, in which policies cause some racial communities to be disproportionally affected by land contaminated by hazardous waste.

“Environmental racism is an important topic that is often overlooked in engineering discourses,” Herzer says. “Changing the curriculum at ASU is a big step in the right direction, toward dismantling current systems of power and institutionalized racism. I hope to conduct research that is not only novel, but also has a tangible impact and can be implemented to benefit the Black and brown communities that are overburdened with environmental contamination.”

Rachel Figard came to ASU as a graduate student after earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from North Carolina State University.

“I wanted to be at a school that supports and encourages novelty and creativity in research. ASU’s commitment to innovation demonstrated to me that I would be supported in that along my PhD journey,” she says. “Most importantly, I wanted an adviser that I felt like I could connect with and would support me along the way. My adviser, (Associate Professor Adam Carberry), along with the ASU faculty at large, have been so supportive throughout my first year.”

Figard’s research seeks to help engineering students with disabilities by exploring their experiences with technology usability. She used her own lived experiences, background and identity in her NSF GRFP proposal.

“As an individual who has experienced discrimination for my gender and ability status, I want to create a space for others like me who may not have a voice,” Figard says. “I have constantly encountered instances where my access has hindered me in reaching my goals. This being true for me means that it is also preventing others as well, which drives me to change the paradigm.”

Receiving an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is important to Figard because it has shown her that “those outside the disabled community recognize the marginalization of people with disabilities and want to provide the funding to help address it.”

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering