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Cottrell Award Giving Undergrad a Grad Student Experience

April 21, 2022
Professor David Strubbe and student Elsa Vazquez pose for a photo at UC Merced.
Physics Professor David Strubbe and undergraduate student Elsa Vazquez. Photo by Zachary Mauri.

Physics undergraduate student Elsa Vazquez and her faculty mentor Professor David Strubbe have won a prestigious Cottrell Postbaccalaureate award that allows Vazquez to continue her research into 2D materials for another year after she graduates with her bachelor's in May.

In her project "Raman Spectroscopy and Friction in Doped 2D Materials," Vazquez is using quantum mechanics to understand the properties of the 2D materials, which are solid lubricants, and measuring the friction between layers of the materials.

"I've been impressed by how well she understands the context and the significance of what she's doing," said Strubbe, with the Department of Physics. "She has been able to articulate it in abstracts, but also in terms that the general public can understand."

Vazquez, a transfer student from the Ventura area, has only been conducting research since last October and even though she is graduating in less than a month, she didn't feel ready to apply to a Ph.D. program.

"I thought I would hold off and look for ways to prepare," Vazquez said. "I feel really lucky that Professor Strubbe presented this opportunity to me."

The Cottrell award will help her prepare for graduate school by allowing her to be hired as a junior specialist. She will work in Strubbe's lab alongside his graduate students, attending seminars, meetings and conferences and building up her research experience, Strubbe said.

"I'm excited," she said. "I've already met most of the grad students in his group and they're all very nice, so I feel like I'll have a good support system to help me get through. It's definitely going to be a challenge, though."

Strubbe also feels confident Vazquez will have enough data on her project by the time the year is over to be able to publish a paper.

"That would be great for her grad school applications because it demonstrates concretely the accomplishments in research and puts them out there publicly," Strubbe said. "I can write a letter of recommendation, but if she also has this paper then people can read it for themselves and judge what she's been able to do."

Besides working in Strubbe's lab this past year, Vazquez has been a fellow with the NASA-supported Merced nAnomaterials Center for Energy and Sensing (MACES). The materials she researches are used aboard spacecraft, but could be used in many different mechanisms.

Cottrell awards are given by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), a private foundation funding innovative scientific research and the development of academic scientists. RCSA aids basic research in the physical sciences (astronomy, chemistry, physics and related fields) at colleges and universities through its Cottrell Scholar and Scialog programs.

Because Strubbe won a Cottrell Scholar Award in 2020, he was eligible to apply for this award for Vazquez. He will receive $50,000 to pay her salary and cover expenses for the year.

Vazquez is a first-generation student whose younger sister also attends UC Merced. She said she had been thinking about going into academia after she earns her graduate degree because she likes to help other people learn. But she's also considering industry or a national lab, too.

"I want to continue doing research that I know can be really impactful for applications that are important now," she said.

She has some advice for younger students:

"Don't limit yourself," she said. "The minute you start thinking you can't do something, you set yourself on a path where you'll lose out on opportunities. Keep an open mind and don't be afraid to ask for help."

Lorena Anderson

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