Two scholars receive prestigious NSF fellowships to study at UB

Karla Sanchez Lievanos (left) and Emmanuel Nsengiyumva.

Karla Rosalia Sanchez Lievanos (left), and Emmanuel M. Nsengiyumva

Karla Rosalia Sanchez Lievanos and Emmanuel M. Nsengiyumva will conduct research and outreach on ‘forever chemicals’ and carbon capture technology, respectively

Release Date: August 14, 2023

“The University at Buffalo is a diverse and inclusive scholarly community that is dedicated to supporting underrepresented, early career scientists with resources so they can pursue innovative research, transformative educational experiences and service opportunities with global impact. ”
A. Scott Weber, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Two University at Buffalo postdoctoral scholars have been named fellows of a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) program that aims to advance scientific discovery and diversify the fields of mathematics and science.

The scholars – Karla Rosalia Sanchez Lievanos and Emmanuel M. Nsengiyumva – will join NSF’s Mathematical and Physical Sciences Ascending Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (MPS-Ascend) program, which awards 20 to 50 fellowships annually.

The program supports early career researchers who aim to “broaden the participation of members of groups that are historically excluded and currently underrepresented” in math and the physical sciences, according to the NSF.

It also provides fellows with research environments, such as UB, “that will have maximal impact on their future scientific development and facilitates their transition into a faculty appointment.”

“The University at Buffalo is a diverse and inclusive scholarly community that is dedicated to supporting underrepresented, early career scientists with resources so they can pursue innovative research, transformative educational experiences and service opportunities with global impact,” says A. Scott Weber, UB provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “Our two NSF Ascend fellows exemplify this commitment, and they will undoubtedly strengthen UB’s position as New York’s flagship research university, as well as its vision to be recognized among the nation’s Top 25 public research universities.”

Lievanos and Nsengiyumva are UB’s first two NSF Ascend Fellows. Other fellows from this year’s class are pursuing postdoctoral research at Harvard University, Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere.

Karla Rosalia Sanchez Lievanos

Lievanos, who earned a PhD in chemistry in May from the University of Rochester, will receive $200,000 over two years from the NSF.

She will study per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals,” which are included in countless commercial products and are now being found throughout the environment, posing health risks to humans and wildlife.

Originally from Oaxtepec, Mexico, Lievanos will develop prototype “nanocages,” which function like tiny spongey containers that soak up pollutants from water. Nanocages also have unique responses to light that can enable them to transform pollutants into safe by-products.

Lievanos will work under the mentorship of Diana Aga, PhD, director of the UB RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water) Institute, and co-mentor Timothy Cook, director of graduate studies and professor in the Department of Chemistry.

“Over the past two years, RENEW has developed a portfolio of robust community partners with whom researchers in our institute collaborate,” says Diana Aga, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

“We tapped this network for Karla and helped her to shape meaningful outreach activities to expand the impact of her research. Offering this resource to faculty and postdocs associated with RENEW strengthens the community-level impact of research, which is crucial for service-driven scientists like Karla – and which is also a key review criterion at NSF,” says Aga.

Lievanos will receive broad interdisciplinary training, including experiences with state-of-the-art analytical chemistry instruments, big data analytics and other technologies. For educational outreach, she intends to partner with Buffalo Public Schools, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, and the International Younger Chemist Network.

“I am honored to be awarded such a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship. It is an exciting opportunity to delve deeper into my passion, collaborate with top-notch multidisciplinary scientists and environmental advocates, and help drive meaningful scientific and social progress,” Lievanos says.

“UB’s excitement about hosting my research and nurturing my broader impact plans is a testament to UB’s dedication to advancing knowledge and societal well-being. It feels great to wake up and feel motivated to go to the lab; UB undeniably fosters an environment of support and inspiration – I feel like I belong here,” she says.

Emmanuel Nsengiyumva

Nsengiyumva earned a PhD this summer from UB under the supervision of Paschalis Alexandridis, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

He will receive $300,000 over three years to work with UB engineers to develop new materials that include nanopores and are capable of self-healing if damaged. These materials will be used to create membranes that separate carbon dioxide (CO2) from other gases — a technology that factories and power plants could potentially install to reduce the amount of carbon they release.

Such an advance could reduce carbon emissions worldwide, helping to slow the pace of global warming.

Nsengiyumva, who also earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from UB in chemical engineering, arrived in the U.S. after spending more than 14 years in a Congolese refugee camp in Rwanda.

“I greatly appreciate Emmanuel as an extraordinary individual who has overcome exceptional life challenges with courage and perseverance, and it has been my genuine pleasure to support his professional development,” says Chong Cheng, PhD, professor of chemical and biological engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Cheng, along with Haiqing Lin, PhD, director of graduate studies and professor of chemical and biological engineering, will serve as co-mentors to Nsengiyumva.

“Emmanuel is self-motivated and has a great curiosity for science and technology,” says Lin. “I am extremely pleased that he shows interest in membrane research and will look forward to working with him.”

For educational outreach, Nsengiyumva intends to work with underrepresented undergraduate students from UB through the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a program he participated in as a student. He also plans to partner with Buffalo Public Schools for K-12 science outreach.

He credits the mentorship and support of his professors in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering for helping him to achieve his goals. Nsengiyumva strives to support other first-generation students, and those underrepresented in STEM fields, work he is committed to continuing during his NSF Ascend fellowship.

“I genuinely believe that the guidance and support from NSF Ascend fellowship leaders, mentors, colleagues, and the UB community will play a pivotal role in shaping my future career and professional development,” Nsengiyumva says. “Also, I am so grateful to be able to stay in Buffalo and continue to contribute to the community that has given me much since arriving to the U.S.”

Lisa Vahapoğlu, PhD, RENEW’s education and outreach director, says the fellowships spotlight the important role that early career scientists, such as Lievanos and Nsengiyumva, play at UB, Western New York and their respective scientific communities.

“This fellowship carries great institutional prestige, and Karla and Emmanuel are both pursuing important scientific research agendas. But we should also be very proud of the fact that they have developed broader impact activities that are firmly rooted in, and responsive to, the priorities of local community constituents,” says Vahapoğlu. “UB’s two NSF Ascend fellows represent the type of socially aware, collaborative scientists who will transform STEM disciplines, making them ever more open and inclusive.” 

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