Melanie Hook, a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering, is the recipient of a 2021 graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Hook submitted both a personal and a research statement for award consideration. As a member of the Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls lab, she had already been part of projects with faculty member Alexander Leonessa, including a virtual reality simulation that enables testing of robotic exoskeletons. She chose this project as the focus of her research statement, proposing to further explore the possibilities of human-robot interaction.

“In my essay, I talked about how I wanted to be Iron Man when I grew up, and how having that technology available would be really cool,” said Hook. “Ever since I first saw the Marvel movie with my dad in 2008, I have been fascinated with robotics, particularly wearable robotics that could enhance strength and endurance like the Iron Man suit.”

As an undergraduate physics major at Slippery Rock University, Hook maintained a 4.0 GPA. This allowed her to distinguish herself with a strong interdisciplinary academic background, building on a solid foundation in physics to pursue further studies in mechanical engineering. She chose Virginia Tech after meeting Alexander Leonessa and becoming more interested in the projects his lab was building.

“Although I did not originally plan to pursue a STEM career, one of my undergraduate professors noticed my aptitude towards math and science and encouraged me to reconsider. Taking her advice was the best decision I have ever made,” Hook says in her personal statement. “I plan to follow in her footsteps to inspire other students, especially women, underrepresented minorities, and students with disabilities to pursue STEM.”

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited US institutions. The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution.