By Adrienne Sylver
Melissa Venedicto '22 has her grandmother’s bad knees to partially thank for one of her most recent accomplishments. The first-year Ph.D. student in FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing has been named a recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship ― an award that will help her continue her work on designing and fabricating implant composites.
Venedicto lives with her grandmother, Olga, who had knee replacement surgery years ago after cancer treatment caused joint deterioration in the joints. “Even after having implants in both knees, she has been in pain because of the irritation caused by the metal,” Venedicto said. “If I could contribute something that would make her day-to-day life better, I would be happy.”
It appears that Venedicto is well on her way to doing just that. She is working on the creation of a implant composite made from biorenewable polymer sources. In recent years, scientists have increasingly explored the use of plants as renewable material and energy sources because they are environmentally friendly and sustainable. In addition to being good for the planet, Venedicto hopes that her research into a plant-based composite will pave the way for a more robust joint implant that is compatible with the human body.
The NSF program is the oldest of its kind and provides promising students with a yearly stipend and an allowance for tuition. Recipients also can take part in professional development opportunities. “NSF Fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering,” the federal agency says.
“Melissa is also an FIU Presidential Fellow and has demonstrated time and again exemplary dedication to her work, professionalism and consistently high-quality performance,” said one of her mentors, Daniela Radu, associate professor in the department of mechanical and materials engineering. “Her proactive nature in finding engineering solutions to real-world problems led to our discussion of her ideas regarding enhanced bone-growth implants with increased biocompatibility.”
Venedicto’s NSF proposal was among the 16% selected for the award from more than 12,000 applicants pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM at U.S. institutions, Radu said. Three other FIU students, from other colleges, also received the honor.
As a youngster, Venedicto dreamed of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, but when she came to FIU as an undergraduate, her interest in biomaterials led her to major in biomedical engineering. She said she uses every bit of knowledge she has gained at FIU ― from her organic chemistry background to her lab skills and the ability to collaborate with other researchers ― as she looks for better solutions for health problems.
She gives Radu and another mentor, Cheng-Yu Lai, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, much of the credit for her success. Not only have they supported and encouraged her throughout her journey at FIU, but they have answered countless questions and provided her with opportunities that have pushed her growth in the research arena, she explained.
“Melissa’s research accomplishments have been catalytic to her decision to pursue her PhD at FIU,” Lai said. “Her work ethic and high dedication to research is paralleled by her academic performance. She is determined to constantly improve her knowledge and I’m confident she will have great success implementing her research plan in the Fellowship project.”
It could take many years before a superior joint implant is used in surgery, Venedicto admitted, saying her work is in the earliest stages of development. In the meantime, however, her grandmother remains her number one fan.
“My family is very proud of me and I am excited to receive the award,” she said. “It is an honor and I love that at FIU I have been able to combine my interests in medicine and engineering.”