Darin Butz Foundation Research Scholars – Summer 2020

Aashna Mehta – Computer Science
Ali Nunes – Materials Science and Engineering
Andrea Perry – Engineering Physics
Liana Koleva – Electrical Engineering
Lydia Spychalla – Engineering Physics
Michelle McCord – Engineering Physics



Nikhila Swarna – Engineering Physics










Aashna is a sophomore in the Department of Computer Science in The Grainger College of Engineering. She is certified in programming languages such as R, Python, SQL, and basic Machine Learning Principles.

She has worked on multiple projects that have put her data science skills to use. Using the OpenCV library in Python and Tensorflow to implement finger tracking through webcam video feed and neural network (created from Kaggle datasets), she trained the network to recognize the Americal Sign Language alphabet. Aashna has also developed two apps using Google APIs and Android Studio: Campus Snake App and Stay Safe App.

Her extracurricular activities included acting as project manager for CS 196 course assistants and working on sustainability projects for developing countries for Engineers Without Borders. Aashna also has substantial experience in web development which she obtained through internships at SwaTaleem, Metanoia International, and Accenture.

As a DaRin Butz Foundation Research Scholar, Aashna will be working with Prof. Matthew Caesar. Her research project is entitled, Reinforcement Learning Methods for UAV Relay Network. Her research will demonstrate the benefits of using machine learning techniques to aid in communication during initial phases of disaster recovery. She will adopt the use of Deep Reinforcement Learning techniques to implicitly learn how the network evolves over time and recommend the best actions to take at each timestep.

Ali is a senior in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in The Grainger College of Engineering. She has also serves as an undergraduate recruiter for her department and meets with prospective students to provide them with information and department tours.

She is active in student organizations such as Women in Engineering and Keramos, the Materials Science and Engineering honors society. Currently, Ali is the president of the UIUC chapter of Material Advantage, the national organization for students in her field. Ali also has a heart for serving the community. Volunteering at the Wesley Food Pantry in Urbana, she assists organizers with unpacking, sorting, and distributing donations. As an Engineering Learning Assistant, she conducts interactive discussions with first-year engineering students to assist them with their needs.

Ali is a participant in the Illinois Scholars Undergraduate Research (ISUR) Program. ISUR scholars are a select group of students committed to conduct research for at least two semesters. Her work on biomaterial platform synthesis in the Harley Research Lab has been presented in local and national conferences.

As a DaRin Butz Foundation Research Scholar, Ali will be working with Prof. Branden Harley under the direct supervision of graduate student mentor, Aidan Gilchrist. Her research project is entitled, Mesenchymal Stromal Cell Remodeling in a GelMa Hydrogel. The goal of her project is to quantify mesenchymal stromal cell remodeling in a GelMA hydrogel by measuring the changes in diffusion.

Andrea is a senior in The Grainger College of Engineering pursuing a dual degree in Engineering Physics and Materials Science and Engineering. She transferred to Illinois from Eastern Illinois University and was homeschooled in high school in Iowa City.

Andrea has an impressive record of undergraduate research experiences and research presentations at various conferences. She has won back-to-back Outstanding Poster Presentation awards in the East Central Illinois Local ACS Undergraduate Research Conference, and Best Poster Award in the AVS Prairie Chapter Symposium.

Her research experience includes participation in competitive summer programs in the west coast. She was an NSF undergraduate research fellow in the University of California San Diego and studied the design process for recrystallizing small molecule hydrophobic drugs for sustained drug delivery systems. Last summer, she was advised by Prof. Harry Atwater as a WAVE fellow at the California Institute of Technology.  Her project was on a photochemical solar fuel generator.

She also served as an undergraduate research ambassador for the Illinois Office of Undergraduate Research from fall 2017 to fall 2019. As an ambassador, she advised and provided guidance to undergraduate students regrading participation in research and creative projects.

As a DaRin Butz Foundation Research Scholar, Andrea will work with Prof. Fahad Mahmood. Her project is entitled, THz Field Enhancement for Coherent Spin Control in Magnetic Insulators. She will implement a strategy of patterning a metallic resonator onto a crystalline substrate for the THz magnetic field enhancement.

Liana is a sophomore in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) in The Grainger College of Engineering. Currently, she is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering with a minor in physics.

Her research interests are in quantum computing and renewables. She was a student researcher in the SRF Department in Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). Her project focused on optimizing energy consumption of particle accelerators by testing different materials under varying levels of stress and analyzing the data computationally.

As a DaRin Butz Foundation Research Scholar, Liana will work with Prof. Matthew Caesar in the Department of Computer Science. Her project LUDI (Library for University Distance Instruction) will focus on creating an online database of educational sources for computer networking.

Lydia is a junior in the Department of Physics in The Grainger College of Engineering. She is a sustainability researcher for the University of Illinois Office of the Provost. In this role, she retrieves and parses datasets with Python scripting to understand and combine financial and performance data to optimize solar farm efficiency.

In addition to an excellent academic record, Lydia is actively involved in local student organizations. She is the president of Navigators, a Christian campus ministry, and is a member of the Society of Physics Students and the Society of Women in Physics.

As a DaRin Butz Foundation Research Scholar, Lydia will work with Prof. Jacquelyn Noronha-Hostler. Her project is entitled, Search for the Quantum Chromodynamic Critical Point. The goal of her project is to discover the Quantum Chromodynamic critical point by simulating the quark-gluon plasma with hydrodynamics to study its behavior under extreme pressure and temperature conditions.

Michelle is a senior in the Department of Physics in The Grainger College of Engineering. She originally started in the Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering program and is now pursuing a degree in Engineering Physics with a minor in Statistics.

Michelle has an excellent academic record and is consistently on the Dean’s List. She is also a member of the Fighting Illini Swim and Dive Team and has represented the school in various swim competitions including the CSCAA National Invitational Championship. Her biggest thrill in sports is going faster than expected at a meet and making the team and coaches proud with every swim.

She has been involved in various research projects since summer of her freshman year. As PWR nuclear fuels intern at Exelon Generation, Michelle developed a code package to bring safety analysis of core design in-house, saving $40K per reload at a plant. In her role as undergraduate researcher in different groups, she 1) built code packages to analyze new course update data (Physics Education Research), 2) explored precise ways to measure changes in magnetic fields using the quantum properties of diamonds (Nuclear Physics Research), and currently works with a femtosecond laser to produce sustained hydrophilic surfaces (Multiphase Thermoliquid Dynamics Research).

As a DaRin Butz Foundation Research Scholar, Michelle will be working with Prof. Caleb Brooks. Her research project is entitled, Textured Superhydrophilic Surfaces’ Effect on Critical Heat Flux in a Vertical Boiling Flow. It involves studying critical heat flux of boiling systems and comparing the critical heat flux effects of different surface textures.

Nikhila is a senior in the Department of Physics in The Grainger College of Engineering. She is majoring in Engineering Physics with a minor in Statistics and plans to specialize in biophysics.

Her interest in physics has led her to a research internship in Northern Illinois University with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Under the guidance of Dr. Michael Syphers, Nikhila developed a computational tool that extracts accelerator data into tables that can be easily manipulated. This project involved computation in R using text processing, object oriented programming, and data manipulation tools. Currently, she is working on an independent research project experimenting with various tags of different biochemical structures to identify a combination that provides the longest and most efficient imaging of the H2B histone protein.

Nikhila also served as an Engineering Learning Assistant in fall 2019. She taught the Engineering 100 class to first year students to help them become familiar with the engineering profession and be successful in their engineering programs.

As a DaRin Butz Foundation Research Scholar, Nikhila will be working with Prof. Paul Selvin. Her project is entitled, Study of cargo transport by multiple kinesin motors in presence of Tau. Her primary objective is to observe and image the ensemble behavior of kinesin while dealing with obstacles on the microtubule path in a force-gliding assay using tau molecules as roadblocks.