Student Features for August 2017

Maria Molina Higgins, doctoral student, Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, School of Engineering

Maria Molina Higgins.
Maria Molina Higgins.

Higgins has received an American Association of University Women International Fellowship. Recipients for this competitive fellowship are selected for academic achievement and a demonstrated commitment to education of women and girls. The award will provide a stipend to support Higgins’ research in nuclear medicine. Her adviser and dissertation director is Jessika Rojas, Ph.D., assistant professor of nuclear engineering.

Higgins’ work focuses on synthesis of titanium dioxide and gold nanoparticles to produce a substance that improves the effectiveness of radiation for treatment of tumors. Her proof-of-concept investigates using X-ray technology to boost gold’s emission of secondary radiation and combining that with the semiconductor properties of titanium dioxide to produce an injectable material that makes tumors more susceptible to radiation.

“The advantage is that patients can get the same benefits with less radiation. This means more targeted therapy and less damage to healthy tissue,” Higgins said. She explained that this process, like other projects in Rojas’ lab, is built around X-ray synthesis of nanomaterials. When perfected, it will be accessible to health care providers because “every hospital has an X-ray machine,” Higgins said.  

Higgins shares the American Association of University Women’s mission to promote equity and education for women and girls. As a nuclear engineer, she is committed to bringing women into what has traditionally been a male-dominated branch of engineering. In her native Colombia, Higgins regularly tutored girls and young women in science. In Richmond, she volunteers with the Girl Scouts of America and has mentored girls earning GSA’s Nuclear Science merit badge.  

“Maria is an out-of-the-box thinker, and passionate about the research and its social applications,” Rojas said. “These qualities make her a strong advocate for women in science. So I was glad that the AAUW awarded this fellowship to an engineering researcher — and thrilled that it went to her.”


Sarah Strickler, junior, Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, School of Engineering

Sarah Strickler.
Sarah Strickler.

Strickler has received the American Nuclear Society’s Raymond DiSalvo Memorial Scholarship. The $2,000 scholarship is available to students who are in a course of study leading to a degree in nuclear science, nuclear engineering or a nuclear-related field. Strickler’s latest research has involved creating infant airway models for testing pharmaceutical delivery devices.

“I hope to go to graduate school to pursue my Ph.D. in an area combining nuclear and mechanical technology with medicine in order to perform medical research,” she said. “Eventually, I wish to help establish and promote advanced medicine, particularly related to nuclear medicine, globally.”