Meet Our Students

Megan Daley ’11, G ’16

Earns SciComm Fellowship With LA Times

Normally you can find Megan Daley ’11, G ’16 engrossed in hydrology research in Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, but this summer she is taking a break from streams and storms to take on an unexpected role writing for the Los Angeles Times.

Daley, an environmental engineering Ph.D. student, earned the opportunity to try her hand at science journalism by being awarded an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship—a competitive national award that places students in major media organizations such as National Public Radio (NPR), Slate, and CNN.

She discovered her passion for science communication while taking a class taught by Hillary Rosner, an environmental journalist who has written for major publications including National Geographic, Wired, and Scientific American. Daley’s class assignments put her in the role of learning about other people’s research and conveying it in an accessible and interesting way. The experience excited her and inspired a desire to delve deeper into writing. She approached Rosner for advice on finding ways to explore writing about scientific topics. Rosner suggested that she apply to the AAAS Fellowship, and the rest is history.

Daley said, “It’s vital for scientists and engineers to effectively communicate the importance of the work that we do in a way that is not overwhelming or inaccessible to people who work in other fields. If we really want the average person on the street to understand why what we do is important and how it affects them, then we need to say it in a way that they are going to read and understand it.”

With that sentiment as the basis for her endeavor, and the mentorship of some of the nations’ top science communicators at the LA Times, Daley has already seen her work published. Her articles include, “Lead exposure soared after kids in Flint started drinking tainted water, CDC says “ and “Super-sticky saliva helps chameleons catch huge prey, scientists say,” with more to come throughout the summer.

When she returns to Syracuse University this fall, Daley will continue research studying how streams recede in the aftermath of storms in the Sleepers River Research Watershed in Vermont with Professor David Chandler. She’s confident that her experience at the LA Times will help her convey the importance of her own research and open the door to further work in science communication.

Anthony Cabrey ’17

Assists in Campus Renovation & Construction Projects

Between the end of the spring semester and the start of fall classes, the campus comes alive with a different kind of energy. Busy crews work to renovate, build up, and beautify the University to prepare for the return of students.

With the work compressed into just a few short months, most students get the big reveal when they return in August.

Anthony Cabrey ’17 will see the transformation unfold throughout the summer as an intern with Campus Planning, Design and Construction (CPDC).

Carey, who has been interning with CPDC for the past five months and continues as a summer intern, has found the behind-the-scenes work insightful, adding practical understanding to his classroom knowledge.

“This experience so far has opened my eyes to many other problems we can face in real-world operations,” says Cabrey, a mechanical engineering student in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “I believe that I will have a more open mind to design possibilities from what I have heard and seen at this position.”

He will get a true feel for the scope of the work—and all the complexities and details of a construction project—during 40-hour weeks.

“I couldn’t think of a better place to intern than for the University that I attend,” Cabrey says. “Every day I am able to understand how buildings I have sat in for three years are running, see what needs to be fixed and see the buildings be upgraded through work that I have done—to me that is very interesting.”

Jason Plumpton, senior project engineer with CPDC, says Cabrey has been assisting on a number of CPDC projects.

“Anthony provided design assistance for the Heroy Suite 333 renovations, assisting with ductwork layouts and sizing and piping layouts and performing most of the drafting for the project,” Plumpton says. “He is also following through on construction by making sure that the equipment and products that the mechanical contractor is using complies with the project specifications and drawings.”

While helping design the new ductwork for the third floor of Heroy Hall, Cabrey says he handed in the work for approval to a CPDC engineer who came back to him with several other things to consider.

“With this internship I have learned that there are many more factors to take into account than simply solving out a formula,” Cabrey says.

Cabrey is also making daily reviews of the construction progress of the Tennity Ice Pavilion refrigeration equipment replacement. He assisted with the steam pressure reducing station insulation survey, reviewing the condition of piping insulation in many of the academic buildings to compile a report, which will be used to develop an energy-saving insulation improvement project.

The experience has made Cabrey proud to be working on projects at the University.

“I enjoy improving the wellbeing of others, and walking around campus seeing projects that I have had a part in is really cool to me,” Cabrey says. “With CPDC I am able to say that I had a part of not only benefiting others, but benefiting my University.”

Through the internship, Plumpton hopes that Cabrey gets a good introduction to the field of consulting engineering and construction and develops an understanding of the components and systems needed to make safe, comfortable buildings.

“I also hope that he takes away the positive experience of seeing a project start from a concept that develops into a design and then is fully constructed and put into operation,” Plumpton says. “To me, this is one the most rewarding parts of the profession, and I hope he will experience this with his assignment on the Heroy Suite 333 renovations project.”

CPDC has had interns in previous summers but has significantly expanded the intern program this year. It has a number of student interns this summer, including from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, SUNY Cortland and Cornell.

Ryan Milcarek

Milcarek Wins NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Ryan Milcarek ’14, a mechanical and aerospace engineering Ph.D. student, has earned a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award will fund three years of his fuel cell and combustion research.

With the resources of Professor Jeongmin Ahn’s Combustion and Energy Research (COMER) lab, Milcarek is seeking to reduce the formation of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in combustion processes using a recent innovation developed by Milcarek and Ahn. Their concept utilizes a two-stage combustor, also known as a rich-burn, quick-mix, lean-burn or RQL combustor, with a fuel cell integrated between the fuel-rich and fuel-lean combustion zones. This flame-assisted fuel cell, as it is called, generates electrochemical power at high efficiency, as well as heat for a range of applications including combined cycles, space heating, and jet engines. This concept builds on much of the work conducted in the COMER lab which seeks to create cleaner combustion through the combined use of fuel cell and combustion theory and technology.

Ahn says, “To earn an NSF Fellowship is a truly remarkable accomplishment and Ryan is deserving of such an honor. His commitment to learning and advancing the science of combustion continuously elevates the work that we do in the COMER lab.”

Milcarek’s NSF Fellowship will support his efforts to study NOx formation in the RQL combustor with and without the flame-assisted fuel cell. The formation of NOx has many adverse environmental and health effects including smog, acid rain, and respiratory problems. Thermal NOx, the primary NOx formation mechanism, can be reduced with the flame-assisted fuel cell concept. However, the formation of NOx in the RQL combustor is also subject to turbulence intensity, the boundary layer, and combustion equivalence ratio, among other factors. Milcarek will study these formation mechanisms and seek to reduce the amount of NOx generated during combustion.

Using resources from Professor Jianshun Zhang’s Building Energy and Environmental Systems Laboratory, Milcarek will also conduct system modeling and analysis to better understand the potential of these flame-assisted fuel cells for enhancing the energy efficiency and resilience of building systems.

Broader impacts of research on society are an essential part of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program. Milcarek is seeking to fulfill that vision by helping high school students become more engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. In addition, he is seeking to establish greater collaborations on campus and with local industries to promote, spread awareness, and develop technologies like the flame-assisted fuel cell.

On top of the NSF Fellowship, Milcarek was recently awarded a $10,000 Grant-in-Aid from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and, as one of the top recipients of the grant, was named an ASHRAE “Life Member Club Grant Recipient.”

Chemical engineering alumnus Joshua Woods ’16 was also awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship from the NSF, and bioengineering alumna Alexis Peña ’16 earned an Honorable Mention.

About the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program supports outstanding graduate students by providing three years of funding for the completion of research-based master’s and PhD programs in supported fields at U.S. institutions. Supported fields are STEM disciplines, but also include psychology, social sciences, and STEM education. 30 Nobel Laureates and 440 members of the National Academy of Science have been past recipients. The program seeks individuals that show the potential for innovation and transformation in their chosen field.

Geoffrey Vaartstra ’17

Mechanical Engineering Senior Named Astronaut Scholar

Geoffrey Vaartstra ’17, a mechanical engineering major, has been named Syracuse University’s 2016 Astronaut Scholar. Each year, the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation selects one student who is pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering or math to receive the prestigious scholarship at each of it’s participating universities.

Vaartstra’s academic interests lie in the development of advanced materials for water and energy applications, specifically water purification and energy systems. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering after graduation.

As an undergraduate, Vaartsrta has been conducting nanotechnology research with Professor Shalabh Maroo in which he investigates water transport phenomena in the sub-nanometer pores of zeolites towards creating an efficient water desalination membrane, and has published and presented an American Society of Mechanical Engineers conference paper as the first author. He is planning to conduct research with Maroo in his senior year on enhanced pool boiling surfaces with nanopattering for his capstone project awarded by the Renee Crown University Honors Program.

Vaartstra was motivated to advance water purification following trips to Mexico in which he visited cities with unsafe drinking water. “Having lived my entire life in the United States, where potable water is always as close as the nearest faucet, the first-hand experience of having to pay for every sip of such a basic human necessity struck me profoundly,” he says. “I have listened to my friends from Puebla talk about the related social impacts, such as high levels of childhood obesity and a range of common health problems among poor communities in Mexico.”

This past spring, he studied abroad in Santiago, Chilé, where he evaluated the engineering challenges that local communities face. Vaartstra was also recognized as an Honorable Mention for the Goldwater Scholarship.

LaVerne Sessler ’16, G ’17

Civil Engineering & Business

It isn’t hard to see how LaVerne Sessler ’16, G’17 ended up enrolled in Syracuse University’s H. John Riley 3+2 Engineering and MBA program. He’s been around construction equipment and business his entire life.

His family owns and operates Sessler Wrecking, a company that specializes in the demolition of bridges, and industrial and commercial structures. But while his family’s expertise is in taking structures down, Sessler’s is in putting them up.

Since beginning work on his degrees, he has completed construction management internships at Hunter Roberts Construction group in NYC and the Dubai Construction Company. He also holds the distinction of being a Syracuse University Remembrance Scholar. This summer, he will work at General Electric in a transportation management internship. Each opportunity brings him closer to his goal of being a professional engineer.

Why did you choose Syracuse University?

“My uncle, Chris Shaffer, attended SU and played football. When I was younger, we’d always come to campus for games and tailgate parties because he’s always been a die-hard Syracuse fan. I really liked Syracuse and subconsciously always knew that it would be the right choice.”

“I like the culture. It’s not strictly an engineering school. You have every major you could think of on campus and it’s nice to know people from other majors. A lot of my friends are in Newhouse or Whitman.”

“It’s big enough that you don’t see the same people everyday, but small enough that you can make connections with professors. I know everyone in my civil engineering program. Professor Clemence was my ECS 101 professor and since then I’ve attended his talks and become good friends with him. He was our mentor for the Dubai internship program and he traveled with us there. He’s always willing to help. He’s a down to earth, great guy.”

Why did you choose to take on an MBA in addition to your civil engineering degree?

“I was looking to go the construction management or engineering management route and this was an opportunity presented to me in my sophomore year, so I applied. I wanted to pursue something more than my bachelor’s and this program gave me the opportunity. Since junior year I have been taking half my classes in Whitman School of Business and half in engineering.”

“Shifting my mindset back and forth from engineering and business works out well. I get a perspective from both sides. It takes a little getting used to, but I enjoy it.”

What are you a part of outside of your academics?

“I ski and play intramural sports. I’m in Delta Tau Delta. I do a lot of philanthropy with my fraternity brothers. We have a softball tourney that goes to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.”

“It adds a lot to my college experience. In addition to all my friends that I have met in classes, I have a whole group of people that I can hang out with and that I can connect with on another level.”

What do you hope to contribute to the world with your education?

“I see civil engineers as the people who hold everything together. The roads, the bridges, the buildings—all of the infrastructure that surrounds us is civil engineering. I look forward to the day I can build something and say ‘That was me. I contributed.’”

“I think my management skills will also play a huge role. With those, you can do more than just be the designer. You can manage the entire project and look at it from a higher level. Even if you aren’t leading the effort, you can understand why the company is doing what it’s doing and it gives you more insight into how things get done.”

Christina Tobias ’18

Computer Engineering

Christina Tobias ’18 is sure of two things —she was born to row and become an engineer. In high school, her passion for math gave way to coding. Her time outside of class was spent competing with her rowing team. When it came time for college, she found her niche at Syracuse University.

Never one for rest, Tobias spent last summer participating in a Google app development program. This summer, she’ll be working for Microsoft. While she excels as a student athlete today, she has her mind on where she will apply her talents in the future.

Through and through, she is a shining example of a Syracuse engineer.

Q. What is life like as a student athlete?

A. We need to have good time management skills. No matter what major an athlete is, you’re working out all the time, usually two workouts every day. You also need to build in time to eat and do everything else that other people take for granted.

In engineering there is a lot of work, but if you are focused and want to be an athlete, you can be! It’s really busy, but fun. Something that is cool is that my team has been doing really well academically. Our team GPA average is above a 3.0. Half of our team averages a 3.7. Coaches like it when your academics match up with your athletics, and it’s especially important for my team.

Q: Why did you choose Syracuse University?

A; Initially, it was about finding an engineering school with rowing. I knew I wanted to be on the east coast and see some snow. I’m from California, so I wanted something different.

However, for me, the people set Syracuse apart. Being a female athlete with a social personality, I’m not what people typically think of as your average engineer. Here at Syracuse, there are a lot of people that I can relate to.

Q. As a young women building a career in engineering, what do you make of the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields?

A. I’ve always known that I wanted to be an engineer, but I decided it was right for me in high school. I went to an all-girls Catholic high school in Silicon Valley. A lot of our parents were engineers. We were expected to be smart, try hard, and excel in all subjects. But still I saw some very empowered, very intelligent girls shy away from math and science out of societal influences. They’d say they weren’t good at it, but I don’t know how they formed that opinion. I grew up in a house of all girls (I have 3 sisters). My dad was an engineer and he was very encouraging and helpful.

I’ve never experienced any big issues being female in my program, but I am one of the few in my class. That’s just how it is around the country. What I love about Syracuse is that everyone is extremely accepting and I don’t feel like I’m left out because I’m female. However, it’s important that we find ways to fix underrepresentation because we do need more females in the STEM fields.

Q. How would you define engineering for someone who’s unsure if it is for them?

A. If you have ever looked at something and wanted to know how it works, your mind is working like an engineer’s. If you think something would be cool, or vital for the world to have, and you want to gain the skills to be able to make it, then you should become an engineer.

Engineering gives you the knowledge of how to do things. It’s not necessarily about always knowing what to do. You learn how to structure your mind to solve problems and stay organized so you can find the best direction to go.

Q. What do you see yourself doing after graduation?

A. I want to do something that effects people positively. I would love to work with underdeveloped countries. For example, providing fresh water. That may not be the work of a programmer, but it is the work of an engineer.

At the same time, I could see myself going the startup direction, developing a product that would help people in the U.S. I could also end up at a tech company.

I’m keeping my options open, but I’m confident that I’m building the skills to be successful in any direction I choose.

Gabriel Smolnycki ’17

Mechanical Engineering

When Gabriel Smolnycki graduates, his diploma will list his major as mechanical engineering, but it won’t capture the full breadth of his Syracuse education. In addition to mechanical, he’s taking electrical courses and earning minors in math and music performance. He’s also working on a biomedical research project and heading up the electrical work for SU’s chapter of Formula Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) as well as the Rocket Club.

If that wasn’t enough, Smolnycki performs in the Hendricks Chapel Choir and University Singers. By his own admission, he is someone who doesn’t relax and spends most of his “free time” writing lab reports or playing in a band with friends. In speaking with him, one is given the impression that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

With so many disparate interests, how do you define yourself?

As someone who wants to know how things work. My degree will only be a single line on my resume, but I’m making sure that the rest will convey the extent of my education—designing cars, rockets, robots, research work, and singing. It’s not enough for me to say that I’ve earned a degree. I want to be able to show how I apply my knowledge in tangible ways. I’m very focused on the real world applications of engineering. I’d rather build an actual system than simulate one.

Some might see music and engineering as two subjects on opposite ends of the spectrum. What is it about music that appeals to you as an engineer?

I see parallels with music theory and engineering concepts. Music is very structured, just like engineering. If you can understand a mathematical proof, then you can follow and analyze music. Like math and engineering, it has certain rules.

Plus, I believe engineering and music are both subsets of something else. When you think about it, something physical like a suspension bridge ultimately works because a whole bunch of equations on a page say it will. In a way, it’s made out of math. It works the same way with music. If you write a musical composition that follows the mathematical rules of music theory, it’s going to sound good. In both engineering and music, the numbers represent something real that you can see, hear, or feel.

What inspired you to pursue engineering?

About 10 years ago I got a little Radio Shack circuit board kit that was probably made in the 70s —the old version where you could hurt yourself if you messed up. It came with an instruction manual for circuits you could build and I went through that and learned to do it but quickly started to think, “What else can I do?” and started to build whatever. I made a couple calculators and a metronome. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t, but I was having fun doing it.

You’re involved in undergraduate research with Professor Michelle Blum. What are you working on?

We’re mainly focused on tribology of joint replacements for human knees. We study the friction and wear properties of the materials that are used in these joints. My job is on the electrical/programming side. We’ve built a machine that simulates the full six-axis motion of the knee during a standard human gait cycle. We’re going to take materials that we know are used in current knee joints, real knees, and new materials, and test them all to learn how to extend their life.

How does mechanical engineering differ when it is applied to the human body?

One of the big things when dealing with the human body (or even parts that we make) is that nothing is as precise as we want it. You can only cut up bones so accurately. The data that we want to collect needs to be very accurate to be meaningful, but the actual physical thing just can’t be without some luck. That’s very different from say, my work with the Formula SAE team where we can machine metal pieces to the exact size and shape that we need.

Why did you choose Syracuse University?

Here I’m given the flexibility to study many different subjects at once—inside and outside of engineering. There are so many great opportunities to get involved. There’s so much happening on campus, you could never even find it all. That suits me.

What’s next for you?

I want to earn a master’s in computer engineering to complement my skill set and will start taking classes toward that, then I want to be out there working.

I want to end up in the nexus between mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering. I want to be able to control something mechanical with an electrical device that is run by computer, which is itself collecting mechanical data. Most of the time people think of robotics, but these concepts can be applied to other things like a car. For example, in the FSAE car we’ll have electric shifters, so I’m designing an electric clutch. Plain and simple, we can design electronic controls to be more precise, much faster, and less error prone than people. I want to work with systems like this.

I want to be an electronics expert, but I also want to be the person that people can go to for trusted info and if I don’t know, then I’m connected and involved enough to know who does.

Megan Brasch


Inspired by the loss of her father and grandfather to leukemia, Megan Brasch, a fifth-year bioengineering doctoral student, is positioning herself for a career in biomedical research to contribute to curing and treating disease.

Her Syracuse University experience is being shaped by time spent immersed in research in the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute (SBI) and applying her leadership strengths in the Women in Science and Engineering Future Professionals program, the Syracuse University Chapter of the Golden Key International Honor Society, and the Engineering and Computer Science Graduate Student Organization.

What inspired you to choose your major?

My father passed away when I was seven and I lost my grandfather at twelve. While I was initially drawn to the idea of attending medical school, my experiences with undergraduate research drove my desire to explore cutting-edge cancer treatment development. I quickly learned that academia offered a unique mechanism to not only foster my own research interests, but also inspire the next generation of young scientists and engineers.

Why did you choose Syracuse University?

For the unique research environment that was available within the department of biomedical and chemical engineering. SBI in particular offered multiple research opportunities that met my personal and career aspirations. SBI also served as an amazing prospect to collaborate across disciplines.

What do you hope to do after graduation?

I would like to remain in the biomedical research sector, focusing on cancer research development or on policies regulating biomedical applications. My ability to break down technical content into an understandable and relatable context and my strengths in organizing and executing large-scale projects has fueled my desire to pursue managerial work in my future career, either in an industrial setting or as a liaison for public policy development in government.

What’s your favorite thing about attending Syracuse University?

The people. I have met and collaborated with a diverse group of individuals throughout my time as a graduate student. I have had the opportunity to work with a broad range of undergraduate, graduate, and professional researchers all interested in developing new applications for their respective fields.

Who has had influenced on your academic trajectory?

My primary advisor, Professor James Henderson, has been a driving force behind my graduate research success. He has consistently provided me with guidance to foster my technical abilities and has granted me the opportunity to expand my mentoring skills and professional network through various department, university, and national opportunities.

What is your research about?

My research looks at improving control and understanding of the cellular microenvironment with a focus on hindering or enabling cell migration behaviors. Within the body, cells are constantly responding to various physical and chemical cues which dictate the behaviors they display. More specifically, reorganization of the extracellular matrix (ECM), the natural scaffolding that cells sit on, interact with, and secrete, has been shown to critically alter migration, adhesion, and morphological behaviors.

On the broad scale, disruption of ECM influences disease states, wound healing, and proper development. My thesis work focuses on the use of smart material designs to alter the cellular microenvironment and on developing new computational tools and analyses to quantify changes seen in cell migration behaviors.

How is Syracuse University helping you to achieve your goals?

The bioengineering program at Syracuse University has granted me multiple opportunities to collaborate with young and experienced researchers across multiple disciplines. This ability to work in an interdisciplinary environment will be crucial for my future career, as cross-collaboration becomes more prominent in industry, government, and academia every day.