CSE Graduate Adriana Ladera awarded NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

May 09, 2022

The oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program aims to support the vitality and diversity of the human resource base of science and engineering in the U.S.

The program recognizes outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited US institutions. Of the 60,000 fellows selected since 1952, 42 became Nobel Prize laureates, and more than 450 became National Academy of Sciences members.

The five-year fellowship includes three years of an annual $34,000 stipend, opportunities for professional development, and a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees paid directly to the institution the awardee attends.

NSF states that fellows are expected to “become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering” and that they’re an important part of the nation’s technological infrastructure, national security, and economic well-being. “So that the nation can build fully upon the strength and creativity of a diverse society,” NSF writes, people from backgrounds and in communities underrepresented in STEM academia are encouraged to apply.

This year, USF Department of Computer Science and Engineering senior Adriana Ladera was  among the nearly 2,200 students from around the U.S. who were awarded fellowships from the program.

Adriana Ladera

Adriana Ladera

An incoming graduate student in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Doctoral Program in Computational Science and Engineering, USF computer science senior Adriana Ladera first came to the institution as an MIT Summer Research Program intern in 2021. While her faculty mentor was MIT Department of Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Heather Kulik, Ladera’s work using neural networks and scientific computing to analyze physical systems will continue when she begins her graduate research with MIT Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Department Assistant Professor Tess Smidt.

Though Ladera’s past research used products of computer science as tools to investigate the properties of materials like thin films, relaxor ferroelectrics, and molecular systems, her future work at MIT will focus directly on the development of simulations, algorithms, and neural networks that can be used by researchers in a variety of STEM fields.

“Rather than the focal point being the science itself, and then computation is kind of in the background, now I want to search more into the computers and the algorithms of simulations with applications that can broadly be applied to different sciences,” she said.

Ladera said that being awarded an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship will allow her to spend more time pursuing other initiatives while working in a research assistantship with Smidt, which was originally going to be her main way of paying tuition at MIT. She said she’d like to hold mentoring classes for other students applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship or graduate school, especially students who are from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM.

“I do want to advance knowledge in computational science, but there’s also a diversity aspect that I do think is pretty important,” she said. “I know I’m not fully qualified to give advice, but I can always give my experience and see what they can take from that. I’d also like to work with organizations that push for more inclusivity in STEM, especially for women and the LGBTQ+ community.”

A teaching assistant for Program Design - COP 3514 since Fall 2020, Ladera said that she made it a goal to make the course better than when she took it by being a mentor for current students. She added a peer leading system to the course and interactive components like trivia to make the course more engaging and immersive. She also uses her role to introduce students to a variety of the opportunities and futures they can pursue in the wide fields of computer science and engineering.

“When they tell you, ‘The peer leading sessions helped a lot.’ it makes you realize you’re actually helping shape the next generation of cool computer scientists or engineers,” Ladera said. “That also made me realize I wanted to be a professor. The same way I had really good role models to guide me through my undergraduate career and through research, I would be so happy to teach the next generations of scientists and computer scientists.”

In her first year at USF after trying several majors and deciding she wanted to be a computer science and engineering major with a physics minor, Ladera applied to a number of summer industry internships as well as NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer programs. Penn State University accepted her application, and after working with a lab group there for the summer, she continued working through the fall semester with Berlin-based science and technology research center Leibniz-Institut für Kristallzüchtung. This led to her first research publication — Temperature dependence of three-dimensional domain wall arrangement in ferroelectric K0.9Na0.1NbO3 epitaxial thin films — published in the Journal of Applied Physics.

“I ended up getting really infatuated with computational science after I realized you can use code and mathematical models to simulate experiments that could be in the real world — but it’s all in the computer,” Ladera said. “I had to find something just like that back at USF, and that’s how I started working with the Department of Physics Computational Nanoscience Group.”

The group consists of members of USF Department of Physics Professor Inna Ponomareva’s research lab, and Ladera’s work there resulted in her second research publication — Ba(Ti1−x,Zrx)O3 relaxors: Dynamic ferroelectrics in the gigahertz frequency range — published in American Physical Society’s Physical Review B.

“I’m still working with them and have been on the same project since I joined,” she said. “We’re only just now wrapping up the project and writing a draft for it. I hope it gets submitted soon — that’s been my baby for the past two years. And Dr. Ponomareva has been the greatest professor ever.”

Ladera’s application for her NSF Graduate Research Fellowship focused on improving high-performance and numerical simulations of turbulent flow — a pattern of movement in fluids where the fluid constantly undergoes irregular changes. She said that because any small change in the initial conditions of the flow can have a dramatic effect on its results, it’s difficult and computationally expensive to simulate turbulence. Investigating improvements meant reviewing a variety of lengthy research papers on turbulence, existing simulations of turbulence, and current techniques for speeding up data transfer in turbulence simulations. USF Office of National Scholars Director Sayandeb Basu also reviewed Ladera’s application and worked with her over much of the Fall 2021 semester as she continued to refine it.

“I had to figure out if my topic was actually possible and then how I could make suggestions for improvement,” she said. “Then I had more literature review and finally started writing. There were so many drafts that I went through with Dr. Basu where he said ‘This doesn’t sound good;’ or ‘This doesn’t sound technical;’ or ‘You should change this and this.’ It took a long time and lots and lots of reading.”

Basu also worked with USF computer science and engineering alum Willie McClinton on his Barry Goldwater Scholarship application, and McClinton is also in a doctoral program at MIT. Ladera said that MIT was one of the schools with a strong computer science program that she applied for summer research at after finishing her Penn State REU, which gave her an edge in applying for a graduate program there.

While she knows that her PhD thesis will stay within the realm of computer science, Ladera said she’s still choosing from one of the many paths her past and future research experience could take her. They include topics in aerospace engineering, topics explored in Smidt’s Atomic Architects lab, or newer topics like machine learning plus biomolecules and using computer science to improve solar cells.

One part of her academic career that’s certain is her promotion of diversity in STEM. A member of the Women in Computer Science and Engineering (WICSE) chapter at USF, Ladera said she’d like to work with both oSTEM and Girls Who Code once she’s achieved her PhD and become a professor.

“I think it’s important to push for diversity and inclusivity in STEM because that means we are opening the doors of possibility to include all scientists across a spectrum of backgrounds, which certainly includes historically underrepresented but brilliant candidates,” she said. “Diversity and inclusivity fosters collaboration and allows one to see perspectives that they might not be able to see alone. I also feel that it’s important to have a role model to look up to. When you see someone just like you making great strides, you start to think that you can do that too.”