Two years ago, Valerie Rennoll applied for a fellowship through IEEE’s Dielectrics and Electrical Insulation Society (DEIS), but was rejected. Rennoll, a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who is a member of professor Jim West’s lab, planned to apply for the fellowship again once she had more experience, which she guessed was why her project was not selected.

Those two extra years appear to have had an impact. Rennoll recently reapplied for the fellowship, and had her project accepted. Though she had to deal with the initial rejection, Rennoll believes her fellow graduate students can learn from her experience.

“While you often get rejected in the process, I think it is a really valuable experience and you learn a lot, so don’t give up and keep applying,” Rennoll said. “Applying for grants and fellowships can take a significant amount of time, but you need to search for a fellowship that is the right fit. I was really excited to hear that I was selected this round, and it’s great to know that experts in the field thought my proposed research was worthy of this funding.”

The fellowship gives her $5,000, with part of the funds being reserved for attending a DEIS-sponsored conference where she will present her work.

Rennoll’s research focuses on piezoelectric materials, which generate an electrical response when deformed. These materials are usually found in biomedical devices or sensors, and can convert changes in pressure or vibrations to useful electrical energy. For materials that have this property, though, they typically need to be processed under specific conditions with stretching, high temperatures, or high electric fields to demonstrate a piezoelectric response.

Rennoll’s goal is to explore how nucleic acids (DNA) can interact with these materials so that they can demonstrate a piezoelectric response without the need for a high electric field.

“I want to understand if there is any relationship between the characteristics of the DNA used and the resulting piezoelectric response of the material,” Rennoll said. “Many current piezoelectric materials are brittle, rigid, and have toxic contents, and the advantages of the piezoelectric materials to be developed here is that they are flexible, sensitive, and easier to process. Our lab is particularly interested in developing these materials to monitor sounds from the body and to harvest energy from ambient vibrations.”

Rennoll first became interested in this area of work when she read an article that looked at the use of DNA to enhance the piezoelectric response of a certain material (the polymer PVDF). Since then, she has focused her research in that area, and has found Johns Hopkins to be an excellent place to conduct that work.

“Being at Johns Hopkins has helped me to pursue this research because of the focus on collaboration across campus. We are working with Dr. Stephen Fried’s lab from the Department of Chemistry to complete this work, and without that collaboration, I do not think the project would be possible,” Rennoll said. “I’ve really enjoyed the learning opportunities that this project has given me. It has been really exciting to get into a new lab setting and start working with DNA.”