WoW Fellowship recipients with Woodward University Relations and IDEA Strategy Manager Daenon L. Gault-Vasconez

Pictured left to right: Woodward University Relations and IDEA Strategy Manager Daenon L. Gault-Vasconez and WoW Fellows Natalie Cannon, Haley Hilborn, Naiki Kaffezakis, and Bettina Arkhurst.

6 Woodruff School Students Awarded WoW Fellowships

May 14, 2024
By Chloe Arrington

Women of Woodruff (WoW), an organization made up of Georgia Tech College of Engineering alumnae and friends, has awarded six fellowships to female students in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. This year’s WoW Fellows include:

  • Bettina Arkhurst 
  • Natalie Cannon 
  • Haley Hilborn 
  • Naiki Kaffezakis 
  • Jennifer Leestma 
  • Vishwa Vasani 

These fellowships aim to attract, support, and retain women students in mechanical engineering and STEM, and are made possible by the continued efforts of WoW members, as well as a generous contribution from Woodruff School corporate partner Woodward. 

Woodward exhibits a commitment to inclusion and belonging, highlighting in their mission statement a belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to reach their greatest potential. Woodward University Relations and IDEA Strategy Manager Daenon L. Gault-Vasconez attended the presentation of the fellowships.  

The recipients were honored at WoW’s biannual spring event held April 19. The event also featured a panel discussion where Woodruff School alumni, faculty, and graduate students discussed the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and mechanical engineering. Panelists included: Amanda Bock, senior propulsion analytics engineer at Delta; Ahmad Haider, senior director of data and advanced analytics at Vertex Pharmaceuticals; graduate research assistants Kevin Ligonde and Mayur Singh; and Fan Zhang, assistant professor in the Woodruff School. The panel was moderated by Shay Natarajan, partner of strategy at Mobility Impact Partners. 

The fellowships are just one way WoW is working to support female students since it was established in 2022. For more information on WoW or to become a member, visit


About the Fellows

Bettina ArkhurstBettina Arkhurst 

Bettina Arkhurst is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Woodruff School. Her research lies at the intersection of energy, design, and equity. She is seeking to create frameworks for mechanical engineers to apply as they design energy technologies for all communities. Arkhurst has participated in research projects spanning disciplines such as parasitology, neuroscience, and thermal metrology. As an undergraduate, Arkhurst found her passions for community-building, mental health, engineering, and equity. She led her department’s graduate student mental health committee and served as a member of the department’s diversity and inclusion council. She is also a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and Alfred P. Sloan Scholar. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT.



Natalie CannonNatalie Cannon 

Natalie Cannon is a third-year Ph.D. student in nuclear engineering, co-advised by Nuclear and Radiological Engineering and Medical Physics Program Chair Steven Biegalski, and Associate Chair for Research and Woodruff Professor Anna Erickson. Her master's research focused on examining additively manufactured nuclear technology and how they challenge existing global export regimes. Currently, she is completing her Ph.D. research at Los Alamos National Laboratory within the advanced nuclear technology group. Her research focuses on real-time neutron noise analysis for critical assemblies, exploring potential applications in nuclear accident scenarios. Previously, she worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the verification and certification of in-vessel reactor components that were additively manufactured.  

Formerly the president of Georgia Tech's American Nuclear Society, Cannon was honored as a 2023 student leader by Georgia Tech for her contributions. Now serving as the co-vice chair of the Nuclear Engineering Student Delegation, she continues to exemplify leadership and dedication within the field. In this role, she spearheads initiatives aimed at fostering collaboration and advocacy within the nuclear engineering community. Additionally, Cannon is actively involved in the development of congressional bills that amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, striving to shape policies that promote safe and sustainable nuclear waste management practices. A passionate advocate for nuclear energy, she has been featured on the Titans of Nuclear podcast as a "Rising Titan of Nuclear Science," where she shares her insights and vision for the future of the industry. She is passionate about promoting nuclear science and engineering education, engaging in policy discussions, and fostering a community of future nuclear professionals. 

Receiving the WoW Fellowship is truly an honor, and I'm incredibly grateful for the support it provides. As a first-generation college student and aspiring nuclear engineer, this opportunity means a great deal to me. It's not just about the financial assistance; it's about being recognized for the journey I've undertaken and the hard work I've put in. I'm thankful for the chance to pursue my goals at Georgia Tech and for the acknowledgment of the challenges I've faced along the way. Thank you to WoW for this meaningful support.

Haley HilbornHaley Hilborn 

Haley Hilborn is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Woodruff School. She is originally from the Pueblo of Laguna, New Mexico. Her research focuses on creating high-fidelity models to improve drilling performance for geothermal applications. She is advised by Assistant Professor Anirban Mazumdar. She earned her B.S. in mechanical engineering from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, while also interning at Sandia National Laboratories. These experiences solidified her dedication to mechanical engineering and provided her with invaluable mentorship, propelling her towards her current graduate studies. Her goal is to return to the national laboratory upon completing her Ph.D. 

In addition to her academic pursuits, Hilborn is dedicated to supporting underrepresented minorities in engineering in higher education, and inspiring K-12 students to pursue STEM fields. She has served as a Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE) undergraduate research and social mentor and is a member of the Woodruff School’s Diversity and Inclusion (DI) committee. Outside of Georgia Tech, she volunteers at a K-5 after-school program run by local Atlanta non-profit, LaAmistad. 

I am deeply honored to be selected as one of this year's Women of Woodruff Fellowship recipients, alongside a group of equally distinguished and talented graduate women. I recognize that I would not have reached this point without the financial support and mentorship provided by fellowships like WOW. I am eager to pay it forward and support future graduate students who will walk in my footsteps.

Naiki Kaffezakis Naiki Kaffezakis 

Naiki Kaffezakis is a Ph.D. student in the Nuclear and Radiological Engineering program in the Woodruff School. Having received a B.S. in nuclear engineering, a B.S. in physics, and an M.S. in nuclear engineering from Georgia Tech, she is in her 11th year at the institution. In that time, she has worked as a secretary for the Honors Program, an RA with Housing, a teaching assistant for several courses, and as an officer for the American Nuclear Society, the Society of Women in Physics, Pride Alliance, and Grad Pride. Kaffezakis currently works as a researcher in the Computation Reactor Engineering (CORE) Lab and as a health physics technician with the Office of Radiological Safety. She is passionate about leaving Georgia Tech a better place than she found, from bringing safe space training to Georgia Techs police force to initiating and expanding an organization for LGBTQIA grad students and their allies to access community and advocacy.  

With an ever-growing need for carbon free energy, nuclear fission could be a potent factor in it. But concerns of sustainability and cost have haunted the industry. Kaffezakis research is focused on answering high level design questions for cutting edge reactor systems to address systemic industry issues. She has explored closing the fuel cycle for thorium-uranium fuels, the technical and economic viability of photovoltaic reactors, and the application of machine learning to develop surrogate models for early-stage design optimization. She is currently working with her fifth group of undergraduates, guiding them through computational modeling and irradiation experimental design. 

“As a transgender woman, there is limited visibility and recognition for woman like me in STEM fields, which makes it even more of an honor to be selected for a Women of Woodruff Fellowship.”

Jenny LeestmaJennifer Leestma 

Jennifer Leestma is a robotics Ph.D. candidate in the Woodruff School where she works with Associate Professor Aaron Young (EPIC Lab) and Joseph Anderer Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor Gregory Sawicki (PoWeR Lab). Her doctoral work focuses on the biomechanics and augmentation of locomotor stability using machine learning-driven control algorithms for robotic exoskeletons. Broadly, she’s interested in how wearable robots can augment locomotion in complex and dynamic environments and how we can expand augmentation approaches to better integrate with the sensorimotor system. 

Leestma’s doctoral work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, both through an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) Accessibility, Rehabilitation, and Movement Science (ARMS) Fellowship. This year, she was named the 2024 recipient of the Pre-Doctoral Achievement Award from the American Society of Biomechanics. Along with her Ph.D., she also completed Georgia Tech’s Certificate in Teaching, which focuses on teaching and learning in higher education. She's passionate about mentoring and has been recognized with the Woodruff School's Fellowship for Commitment to Undergraduate Research. Previously, Leestma received an M.S. in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech and a B.S. in biomedical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

I’m truly humbled and grateful to receive this recognition from the Woodruff School. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the ongoing impact that WoW will have on the department as they continue to expand avenues to support women in the Woodruff School. I’ve had a phenomenal experience at Georgia Tech, and I greatly appreciate the additional financial support of the WoW Fellowship as I complete the final months of my dissertation.”

Vishwa VasaniVishwa Vasani 

Vishwa Vasani is a bioengineering Ph.D. candidate in the Woodruff School. Her doctoral research focuses on utilizing organoids as a model system and microfluidics as a powerful tool to gain new insights into mechanical signaling involved in cancer invasion. 

Vasani obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay in India. During her undergraduate studies, she was a senior design engineer on her university’s Formula Student team where she designed the team’s electric car battery and represented them at the Formula Student competition. While she enjoyed mechanical design engineering, she found her calling in utilizing mechanical engineering principles for understanding the most sophisticated design of all – the human body. She has followed her passion through her thesis research in Price Gilbert, Jr. Chair in Regenerative Engineering and Medicine, GRA Eminent Scholar, and Professor Shuichi Takayama’s microfluidics lab at Georgia Tech. 

Vasani is passionate about fostering a sense of community among students involved in interdisciplinary research, with the view that the best research is born out of meaningful interactions with colleagues. She has served her community as the president of the Bioengineering Graduate Association (BGA), prior to which she was the vice president and events chair. She is currently the president of the Micro-Physiological Systems Society, which organizes seminars on the general theme of physiology-mimicking in-vitro systems. She is the recipient of Bioengineering program’s Christopher Ruffin Leadership Award and the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience's Above and Beyond Award. She enjoys teaching and mentoring, and has mentored several undergraduate students for research credit, as part of the NSF Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies (CMaT) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program as well as the Nakatani Research & International Experience for Students (RIES) program. She was selected to attend the ME Rising Stars Future Faculty Workshop held at University of California, Berkeley in 2023. In her free time, Vasani enjoys cooking and dining with friends, watching movies, and staying active with activities like kickboxing, yoga and running. 

“I am very thankful for this award. Receiving the WoW fellowship makes me feel supported and encouraged in the efforts to perform innovative and meaningful research, and in serving my community at Georgia Tech. The financial support will go a long way in helping me focus on research and my mental and physical health without stressing about the living costs.”