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Grad student moves closer to dream


April 23, 2007

If Philip Wheat's career path goes as he hopes, his education in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering will take him from airplanes in the skies above Arizona to spacecraft exploring Mars.

Wheat earned a private pilot's license at age 17. At 18, he had his commercial license and became a certified flight instructor. At 19, he helped his parents start a flight school in Mesa , Ariz. , and worked there as an instructor.

Now, at 24, the ASU graduate student is poised to expand his aeronautical horizons by pursuing a dream of becoming a mission specialist with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, particularly with NASA's Mars projects.

The opportunity to reach that goal has been bolstered recently by a National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowship, one of the most prestigious awards for students seeking advanced degrees in science and engineering.

It will provide Wheat with tuition plus a $30,000 stipend for each of the next three years as he pursues a doctorate in mechanical engineering.

Competition for the award is rigorous. Typically, the applicants are the top 2 percent or 3 percent of students in various university graduate programs, says Wheat's graduate adviser, Jonathan Posner, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the Micro/Nanofluidics Laboratory.

This year, a little more than 10 percent of about 8,400 students who applied received NSF graduate fellowship awards. Applicants are evaluated on their academic record, research proposals, reference letters and the potential for their work to have broad impacts in their chosen disciplines.

“Philip must have been judged to be excelling in each of these areas” for an NSF panel of professors and scientists to select him for a fellowship award from among thousands of highly talented peers, Posner says.

Wheat achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average while earning his bachelor's degree at ASU in aerospace engineering, and he is continuing to maintain that GPA in his graduate studies.

During two summers in his undergrad years, he worked with as intern with the Air Force high-performance computer program.

His achievements also include an ASU Fulton Fellowship, bestowed on graduate engineering students whose performance demonstrates outstanding scholarly abilities.

Wheat also began to show his research skills early in his ASU years through the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (FURI) program, in which he worked with Fulton School faculty on a project in parallel computer programming.

In graduate school, he is working on proteomics, helping develop technology for rapid disease biomarker detection through research funded by the new Arizona State University-University of Arizona Biomedical Collaborative. The microfluidic-based strategy allows for separation and label-free identification of proteins in minutes, rather than in hours or days.

The technology Wheat is helping develop in Posner's lab enables early diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases.

The NSF also was impressed by Wheat's proposal to use what he's learning to lead science outreach programs for high school students, particularly for Native American students in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in the Phoenix area.

“The NSF award not only recognizes Philip's talent as a scholar, but reflects well on the preparation and training in engineering fundamentals provided by our undergraduate and graduate programs,” says Kyle Squires, interim chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Wheat expects his graduate education at ASU to place him firmly on the road to a number of career options – an engineering professorship, a research leader at a national laboratory, or that dream job with the U.S. space program.

His achievements have been fueled since his days as a young airplane pilot by the passion of “a natural-born explorer,” he says.

“I always want to know the how and the why about all the things we don't yet understand, so we can overcome obstacles to the benefits science and engineering can bring to society,” Wheat says.