Originally published April 14, 2016
By Christina Rodriguez
This year the National Science Foundation (NSF) offered four University of Texas at El Paso alumni and one current UTEP graduate student the prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship. Approximately 17,000 students across the nation applied to the program, while only 2,000 fellowships were awarded.
“We are immensely proud of our UTEP alumni who have received this prestigious award and who are pursuing graduate education at top institutions around the country,” said John Wiebe, Ph.D., UTEP associate provost. “It is also fantastic to see UTEP graduate students compete successfully with the best applicants at top-tier schools elsewhere. These awards require excellent academic preparation, and we appreciate the contributions of all the staff and faculty who served as mentors to the awardees.”
The NSF program recognizes and supports outstanding students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. Awardees receive a $34,000 annual stipend, plus $12,000 to pay for tuition and fees.
“The award of a substantial number of the NSF Fellowships to UTEP students over the last several years is evidence both of the strength of our undergraduate programs in science and the high quality of our graduate programs,” said Charles Ambler, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s Graduate School. “It is especially exciting to see Dominic DeSantis earn a fellowship this year, since he is a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, one of our newest programs.”
The following are the recipients of the 2015 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship:
Current Institution: University of Minnesota
Rafael Aguilera received his bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in biology from UTEP in 2014. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, where he is conducting research revolving around political psychology, intergroup relations and social justice issues. His political psychology work investigates the influence of peoples’ political ideological beliefs on their perceptions of and preferences for several forms of science. Aguilera’s research involving intergroup relations focuses on the effects that explicit or overt forms of racism in the media may distract people from more subtle forms of racism, such as racial micro-aggressions. His work on social justice investigates the effects that using race in university crime alerts may have on peoples’ perceptions of others. Aguilera plans to remain in academia at a university and continue to conduct research.
Current Institution: University of New Mexico
Victoria Bowler was a first-generation college graduate of UTEP in 2012, receiving her bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She credits her UTEP mentors Gina Nuñez-Mchiri, Ph.D., and David Carmichael, Ph.D., with encouraging her academic and research interests. Bowler is currently attending the University of New Mexico as a graduate student specializing in zooarchaeology and public archaeology. It is her hope to conduct an in-depth study of variation in life histories and burial treatments of dogs from the prehistoric American Southwest, a project that has the potential to transform understanding of the roles of domestic animals in North American pre-history. Bowler plans to keep a strong public outreach component to her research and future career in order to support the inclusion of underserved communities in groups not traditionally represented in science.
Dominic Louis DeSantis
Current Institution: The University of Texas at El Paso
Dominic Louis DeSantis is a current UTEP graduate student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Program pursuing his Ph.D. He graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. His doctoral research synthesizes radio telemetry and accelerometry data collection techniques to study movement ecology in western diamond-backed rattlesnakes of the Indio Mountains Research Station. As part of his research, he collects movement data with higher resolution and precision than previously reported in snakes, allowing for robust analysis of ecological and evolutionary drivers of rattlesnake movement and behavior. DeSantis’ primary research mentor is Jerry D. Johnson, Ph.D. Following completion of his Ph.D., DeSantis plans to pursue a career in academia.
Current Institution: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Alexandra Navarro developed a passion for the field of biology and research through her UTEP mentors Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., Renato Aguilera, Ph.D. and German Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D. while pursuing her undergraduate studies. After graduating from UTEP in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, she participated in a post-baccalaureate program at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Navarro is now a graduate student at MIT looking to conduct basic research to understand the detailed mechanisms that drive cell biology. She is particularly interested in understanding the manner in which signaling pathways coordinate the dynamic process of cell division. In the future, Navarro hopes to become an academic researcher. She also aspires to establish STEM outreach programs for elementary through high school students to provide early exposure to science and the meaning of pursuing a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career.
Current Institution: California Institute of Technology
Andres Ortiz-Muñoz is a proud UTEP graduate who received bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics in 2014. He attributes his success to his UTEP mentors Piotr Wojciechowski, Ph.D., with whom he completed his undergraduate thesis; and Vladik Kreinovich, Ph.D., and Mahesh Narayan, Ph.D., who were his mentors while part of the Undergraduate Program for Bioinformatics Training (UPBiT). Ortiz-Muñoz is currently working on several research projects at the California Institute of Technology involving the mathematical theory of abstract Chemical Reaction Networks (CRNs) in the lab of Erik Winfree, Ph.D. His research includes trying to develop a computational model of organismic development that can help us understand the amazing ability of biology to build highly complex organisms from comparatively simpler programs contained in the genetic code.