Katy Gerace awarded 2019 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Gabrielle Stewart
July 09, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Katy Gerace, a doctoral student in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), will be able to advance her research interests in materials science and engineering after receiving a 2019 Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. She is one of seven EMS students and 24 Penn State students overall to receive the honor.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program “recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited institutions in the United States.” Twelve thousand students apply annually and 2,000 receive awards.

Gerace’s research focuses on functional fibers. By relating two areas of research, piezoelectric glass ceramics and optical fibers, she hopes to aid in the advancement of “smart” textiles that sense and react to stimuli.

Glass ceramics are unique in that they contain both a noncrystalline glass – lacking long-range order in their arrangement of particles – and ceramic microcrystals exhibiting an ordered structure. This means that additional functionality can be obtained beyond purely noncrystalline materials, such as piezoelectricity or enhanced nonlinear optical effects.  

Piezoelectricity refers to a material’s capacity to generate an electric charge in response to an applied stress or strain. Piezoelectric glass ceramics, unlike many piezoelectric materials, are lead-free and stable at higher temperatures, as well as resistant to drastic temperature changes. For a material to be piezoelectric, its crystal structure must be noncentrosymmetric, meaning it lacks points about which the structure of the molecule is radially symmetric. Piezoelectrics must also contain domains with polar orientation, or areas where the electric dipoles are aligned in the same direction.

Gerace’s challenge, she said, is developing a material with the properties of a piezoelectric glass ceramic as well as a glass fiber.

Gerace in lab

Anthony DeCeanne, Jr. (right), doctoral student in material science and engineering, also in Mauro’s lab, assists Katy Gerace in pouring molten glass.

IMAGE: Penn State

“I aim to merge the two opposing concepts through a processing method,” Gerace said. “Understanding the role of processing and its impact on properties and structures will be vital for finding the exact glass composition to make it work.”

Gerace’s research has potential applications in areas from military and defense to consumer products. For example, a person could monitor their motion, breathing, heart rate, and more simply by wearing clothing spun with piezoelectric fibers.

“Katy is a very bright and motivated young scientist with a keen interest in developing glass-ceramic fibers for a variety of applications,” said John Mauro, professor of materials science and engineering and Gerace’s adviser. “It is truly a joy to have Katy as part of our glass research group at Penn State.”

For Gerace, who at first intended to enter the industry rather than attend a graduate program, the grant has encouraged her passion for materials science.

“I’m honored to have been selected for this fellowship,” said Gerace. “It enabled a lot of project independence, and this made me think hard about what I really love to do and hope to achieve.”

In addition to her academic work, Gerace is involved in the Materials Research Society, a global organization with a membership of more than 14,500 materials researchers. She also participates in events with the Student Farm Club.

R. Allen Kimel, teaching professor of materials science and engineering and associate head for undergraduate studies, and Joshua Robinson, associate professor of materials science and engineering, provided mentorship throughout the NSF fellowship application process.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 18, 2019