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Doctoral Students Honored with Cullen College’s Best Dissertation Awards

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Natalie Thayer
Nikhil Walani
Maruti Mudunuru

Two doctoral students in the UH Cullen College of Engineering received the college’s Best Dissertation Awards for fall 2015.

Mechanical engineering student Nikhil Walani and civil and environmental engineering student Maruti Mudunuru were selected as this year’s winners based on the originality and importance of the research presented in their dissertation defenses, as well as their potential to make significant contributions to the future of their respective disciplines.

Under the guidance of his faculty advisor, assistant professor of mechanical engineering Ashutosh Agrawal, Walani explored how nutrients and other molecules are transported across the membranes of biological cells, in particular the role that proteins play in this process. His dissertation was titled “Mechanics of Cellular Transport.”

Walani, who earned his undergraduate degree in civil engineering, said he was drawn to mechanical engineering at the University of Houston because he wanted to study the fundamentals that govern the behavior of materials.

“I went from working with structures designed on a macro scale, where the measurements are in tens of meters, to exploring structures at the subcellular level, where most of the measurements are in nanometers,” he said. “By this change of scale, I’ve gained a new perspective on the physics of structures. It’s been fascinating.”

Cells are surrounded by a membrane, which serves to protect the DNA and other organelles within the cell. In addition to forming a barrier, cell membranes allow for transport of essential proteins, ions and other nutrients across them. For the transport of nutrients and molecules, or cargo, that cannot penetrate this membrane, a specific set of proteins from the interior of the cell is called to action. These proteins drive the deformation of the membrane, causing it to wrap around the cargo, fuse at the neck and detach from the parent membrane, thereby creating a sealed vesicle to transport the cargo to various organelles inside of the cell.

Walani and Agrawal’s research focused primarily on understanding the cellular transportation processes involving the protein clathrin, which plays a primary role in the formation of coated vesicles in eukaryotic cells.

This research has the potential to contribute to the future of engineering through biomedical applications, Walani said, because it provides scientists and engineers with more information about the specific roles of each protein involved in the cellular transportation process.

“By understanding how proteins behave in different mechanical environments, drug designers can develop more effective drugs because they can tailor the drugs accordingly,” he said.

Mudunuru worked with his faculty advisor, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Kalyana Nakshatrala, to develop various numerical methodologies to address common subsurface challenges, such as hydraulic fracturing. His dissertation was titled “On Enforcing Maximum Principles and Element-wise Species Balance for Advective-Diffusive-Reactive Systems.”

Subsurface energy sources present a significant and long-term opportunity for power production, making the ability to accurately model and predict the performance of these systems more essential than ever before.

By addressing commonly-faced subsurface challenges and deficiencies, Mudunuru said his research has the potential to impact long-term infrastructure sustainability, climate research, groundwater modeling, energy security and waste management.

Drawn to engineering by the desire to apply scientific concepts to practical, real-world problems, Mudunuru received degrees in mechanical and civil and environmental engineering before attending the University of Houston for his doctoral studies.

“Taking diverse engineering courses and engaging with people outside my own department were instrumental in my academic and professional development,” he said. “Doing so reinforced basic scientific concepts, generated new ideas and enhanced my communication skills, which are vital during and beyond life as a student.”

As recipients of the Best Dissertation Awards, Walani and Mudunuru will be recognized at the fall 2015 Convocation ceremony. Both students will receive a plaque and honorarium of $1,000.

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