MNE Doctoral Student Wins American Association of University Women International Fellowship

Maria Molina Higgins, a doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, 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,” she said. Higgins explained that this process, like other projects in Rojas’ lab, is built around X-ray synthesis of nanomaterials so, when perfected, it will be accessible to health care providers because “every hospital has an X-ray machine.”  

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.  

Rojas said, “Maria is an out-of-the-box thinker, and passionate about the research and its social applications. 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.”