Graduate Research Fellows 2017

Finan, Emily

Emily Finan

As a graduate student in the PhD program at the College of Optical Sciences, my research focuses on the design, implementation, and testing of optical systems in order to engineer solutions to real-world problems.  Optical Sciences plays a role in many of the emerging technologies transforming our society, and optics will continue to be a topic of interest for future STEM students.  My involvement with outreach activities through Women in Optics (WiO), Student Optics Chapter (SOCk), Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), and the Center for Integrated Access Networks (CIAN) has been in the hopes of inspiring these future innovators.  This NASA Space Grant project will build on these outreach activities to develop an online hub in order to centralize the outreach efforts for the students of the College of Optical Sciences.  The website will provide training for students new to leading demonstrations, emphasize scientific literacy and effective scientific communication, and serve as an accessible resource for STEM classrooms.

Gebhardt, Martha

Martha Gebhardt

In addition to working on my PhD (studying soil microbial communities and their interactions with plants) I have been running educational programming down at the Santa Rita Experimental Range since 2014. Through this position I have seen first hand the benefits (and challenges) of engaging students in STEM inquiry-based education. With the NASA Space Grant, I am working with high school teachers, university professors and other STEM professionals to develop hands-on curriculum teachers can easily implement into their classrooms. Developing the lessons with teachers helps to ensure that they align with state standards and contain all necessary information needed to help both students and teachers understand core concepts. STEM experts are involved in lesson development to verify lesson material and ensure comprehensive coverage of various STEM topics and career opportunities in STEM. Complementary videos are developed in tandem with lessons to help explain difficult concepts. All lessons and supplemental materials will be made pubically available online with embedded survey metrics to monitor website activity and facilitate maximum impact.

Kirby, Matthew

Matthew Kirby

I am a 5th year PhD student in the Department of Physics. The Pima Air and Space museum has a gallery devoted to space exploration and research. The gallery has become quite outdated and presents the gallery content in a very terse manner. This year, I will be working with the gallery’s curators to revitalize many of the exhibits in the Space Gallery. We will be building new exhibits to show off recent, space-based missions with exciting results such as Curiosity, LCROSS, the Hubble Space Telescope or Cassini. I will also be rewriting much of the existing content in the exhibit as well to make it more accessible to the many thousands of visitors to the gallery each year.

Ramohalli, Nikitha

Nikitha Ramohalli

I am a first year Master's student and aspiring inventor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. Currently, I am researching modular electronics and easily configurable hardware for rapid prototyping and user-customization of consumer electronics. Using principles of both analog design and computer architecture, I have been working on using development platforms to incorporate rapid prototyping in STEM education, especially for K-12 students and beyond. 

The goal of this project is to design and create an easily implementable emulation of a hackerspace in the classroom, by taking advantage of existing open-source embedded systems and easily accessible materials. This design will be accompanied by a proposed lesson plan with hands-on projects that progressively and gradually increase in difficulty. I will study the impacts of these projects on the students’ learning outcomes. Based on the results, and my background in printed circuit board (PCB) design, I will develop insights on what functions and aspects of different development systems are best for fostering innovation among students in STEM education. In addition, I will leverage the emerging Internet of Things technology to provide a strong motivation for students’ involvement in computer engineering and embedded systems design.

Christopher Shepard

Christopher Shepard

I am a 3rd year Ph.D. student in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science; I am currently working to understand how soils form over time in Southeastern Arizona as part of the Catalina-Jemez Critical Zone Observatory (CJCZO, Along with my current research, I am currently developing a video series about the researchers working on the CJCZO with the Flandrau Science Center ( The Critical Zone is the thin outermost layer of the Earth’s crust, from the top of the tree canopy down to groundwater; this layer of the planet is where the majority of life exists. The concept of the Critical Zone is integral to the earth and life sciences, but this important layer of the planet remains largely unknown to the general public. With this video project I hope to increase the awareness and understanding of the Critical Zone, and the science currently being done to understand this layer of the planet.

The videos will feature short profiles of the researchers and their projects currently working on the CJCZO; by putting a face to the science, we hope to better communicate the research being done by the scientists on the CJCZO and why we need to better understand the Critical Zone. By communicating the science through the personal narratives of the scientists working on the project, we hope to make the science easily accessible and understandable, and that everyone can be a part of the scientific process. In addition, the videos will highlight selected science projects and scientific tools and concepts that the researchers of the CZO use to study the Critical Zone. This video series will be available to the public through sites such as YouTube and at the Critical Zone Exhibit at the Flandrau Science Center.

Molly Simon

Molly Simon

I am a 5th year PhD student in the Department of Planetary Sciences (Lunar and Planetary Laboratory). My research interests have always revolved around planet formation, both from a scientific and an educational standpoint. Fortunately, the Planetary Sciences department has allowed me to pursue a “hybrid” dissertation project, where I am able to contribute to the field of planet formation by conducting both science and education research. My current research project is a two-phased, mixed-methods study aimed to analyze college students’ preinstructional ideas about planet formation. For the first phase of the study, I used short answer questions covering a variety of topics pertaining to planet formation (planetary composition, gravity, basic definitions, and planetary motion) to investigate the range and prevalence of students’ ideas, prior to instruction, about these topics. Coding these responses for common themes, categories, and misconceptions aided in the development of the first version of the Planet Formation Concept Inventory (PFCI). A concept inventory is a multiple-choice instrument focused on a specific topic and it is based upon known student misconceptions in addition to instructors’ goals for teaching the material. Concept inventories are extremely useful for assessing students’ pre and post-instructional understanding of a certain topic. In this next year, I will continue to develop and validate the PFCI using feedback from upwards of 1,000 ASTRO 101 students, in additional to performing a statistical analysis of the instrument. The final version of this instrument will allow instructors to evaluate students’ understanding of planet formation before and after instruction. More importantly, instructors will be able to evaluate the efficacy of new pedagogy developed on this topic.