Second chances: Graduate student receives NSF research fellowship

Closeup of Sonja Sargent Sparks.
Sonja Sargent Sparks

Sonja Sargent Sparks started life over again in her thirties, and her renewal has led to success as the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

The highly competitive fellowship award, one of 2,000 given nationwide, will provide three years of financial support for Sargent Sparks, a PhD student in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

Sargent Sparks was living in Tacoma when she decided to enroll in Bates Technical College to learn about 3D printing and CAD modeling. Although she had little math background, she soon became interested in engineering and decided to pursue a mechanical engineering degree, eventually transferring to and then graduating from WSU.

“I chose WSU Pullman because I heard that it was a positive and collaborative atmosphere, and that has since proven to be true,” she said. “Additionally, I had heard about research opportunities in Pullman and wanted to try out research. It turns out — I really enjoy research, so I decided to stay and pursue my PhD in mechanical engineering under my advisor, Dr. Kaiyan Qiu.”

Qiu, Berry Assistant Professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, is working to design, fabricate, test, and optimize a flexible 3D-printed biomimetic sharkskin. The researchers hope that the materials they develop will reduce drag in the water with possible applications in underwater vehicles, robots, and swimsuits.

Studied since the 1980s, shark skins are covered with thousands of small, tooth-like structures called denticles that reduce drag, save energy, and allow sharks to swim quickly and efficiently. Because of their tightly packed arrangement, the denticles also serve to fight off microbial infections.

In trying to develop an artificial sharkskin with similar properties, the researchers are working to understand the optimal arrangement, size, spacing, thickness, and height for the imitation denticles. The researchers are using both experimental and simulation methods to try to optimize a biomimetic sharkskin.

“Our final goal is to optimize the biomimetic surface and reduce the drag for different underwater applications,” said Qiu.

As she is continuing her studies as a graduate student and now as the recipient of a prestigious fellowship, Sargent Sparks is grateful for second chances.

“I am profoundly honored to receive this prestigious award. It symbolizes not just a personal achievement, but a testament to the path that brought me here,” she said. “Without the investment and encouragement of those who believed in me every step of the way, I wouldn’t stand where I am today. I am deeply grateful for this and excited to continue with this journey.”

In addition to Sargent Sparks, WSU alumnus Gunnar Sly also received one of the NSF fellowships for his studies at Penn State University.

Next Story

WSU Insider will be back Tuesday

The staff at WSU Insider hopes you make the most of your Memorial Day holiday. Fresh posting will resume Tuesday. If you’re looking for thoughtful reading this holiday weekend, consider this 2019 article about Carson College of Business’s Matt Beer and his efforts to honor fallen heroes like Air Force Captain Larry Trimble, a Palouse native and WSU graduate who […]

Recent News

Reflecting on the spring semester

In a letter to the WSU community, President Kirk Schulz emphasizes the university’s commitment to free speech and the importance of recognizing our shared humanity.