UT-Dallas student earns Homeland Security fellowship

By Patrick McGee
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
September 4, 2003

DALLAS - Don't be fooled by Vasiliki "Vicky" Zorbas' modesty and laid back manner. The U.S. government wasn't.

Government officials and scientists were impressed with the graduate student's distinguished academic record and military service and made her one of the first recipients of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's competitive fellowships.

Only 5 percent of applicants were awarded the undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships. Zorbas, 27, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas will have her full tuition and fees paid for three years and receive a monthly stipend of $2,300.

The scholarships and fellowships go to students studying sciences that might lead to new technologies for homeland defense. Zorbas is studying high tech fibers that could have a variety of defense uses.

About 2,500 students applied for the scholarships and fellowships, but only 102 were awarded, said Pam Bonee, a spokeswoman for Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. The Tennessee-based institution manages the scholarships and fellowships for the Department of Homeland Security and has been managing similar scholarships and fellowships for Department of Energy since the 1940s.

Zorbas, a 1997 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a former Army captain, said she sees her fellowship as "continuing my service to the nation."

She grew up in New York City and went to a magnet high school in the Bronx for teenagers talented in math and science. She earned a degree in chemistry at West Point and is pursuing her master's and Ph.D. in chemistry at UT-Dallas.

When asked about attending West Point or taking on rigorous scientific research, Zorbas nonchalantly says she took on the challenges because "it's pretty cool" or "I always liked chemistry."

She talks in much more depth about her scientific research than about herself - though it's hard for a lay person to follow.

Basically, Zorbas is studying carbon nanotubes' reactions to different materials. Nanotubes are extremely small fibers - 50,000 times thinner than a human hair - and extremely strong. Future uses could include micro sensors in or outside of the body to detect chemical or biological weapons, special clothing that stores energy like a battery and even artificial muscles to enhance soldiers' strength.

Nanotubes, however, tend to cluster making it harder for scientists to manipulate the tiny fibers to make these applications possible. Zorbas is studying ways to get the nanotubes to disperse in water, an important step toward their future use.

"She's highly focused," said chemistry professor Ingna Holl Musselman, Zorbas' reference for the fellowship. "Because she had to serve five years in the military she's a little bit older than other students so she's a little more seasoned and a little more organized."

Patrick McGee, (817) 548-5476