MechSE doctoral student Valeria Saro-Cortes has won a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. NSF’s GRFP recognizes and supports individuals early in their graduate training in STEM fields. The prestigious award comes with three years of support for her graduate education.
Saro-Cortes’ passion for research as well as environmental sustainability led her to UIUC and Assistant Professor Aimy Wissa’s Bio-inspired Adaptive Morphology (BAM) Lab in fall 2019, when she also won a Sloan Scholarship that supported her first year of graduate research.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2019 from Rutgers University. During her time there she worked in the Hybrid Micro-/Nanomanufacturing Lab, developing new strategies to fabricate complex micro- and nano-scale structures.
“The two projects I spent the most time on were the development of a parallel photolithographic manufacturing procedure for ionic liquid propulsion in CubeSats and the development of a growth strategy for selectively tuned ZnO nanorods on flexible substrates,” she said. After working there for nearly three and a half years, Saro-Cortes said she was confident she wanted to continue to do research outside of Rutgers.
During the summer of 2018, she participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), which introduced her to research in fluid mechanics and bio-locomotion, her current field of study. She worked at the Penn Complex Fluid Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, investigating the mixing rates of self-propelled particles, specifically, the bacteria V. cholerae. She said this experience solidified her desire to attend graduate school.
The summer before arriving at Illinois, Saro-Cortes had another research experience with Draper, where she participated in additional materials work similar to her undergraduate experience. She worked on the fabrication of thermoelectric materials, making and characterizing the mechanical properties of stencils and eventually aiding Draper’s first in-house production of a thermoelectric material.
Her research focus in the BAM Lab is on bio-inspired design of UAAVs, also known as unmanned aerial-aquatic vehicles (a singular system that can move through air and water). To do this, she studies flying fish—which are naturally skilled at moving through both environments, transitioning seamlessly from high-maneuverability aquatic locomotion to long-distance aerial travel. Her research has applications in ocean surveying; these kinds of machines could explore areas that are dangerous or difficult for other systems or humans to try to reach.
At Illinois, Saro-Cortes has found a welcoming community in addition to great research opportunities. Through the Sloan Scholarship, during her first year, she met other students and formed a community with them. She described MechSE as very community-oriented, with people genuinely helping each other. She is now the president of GraMS, the Graduate MechSE Society, where she works with the other students in the council to enrich the MechSE graduate experience via social connections and career development opportunities.
Saro-Cortes said that after graduating, she would like to develop her career within the realm of environmental sustainability, with an interest in topics including environmental remediation, renewable energy, and environmental justice.