Originally published April 17, 2015
By Nadia M. Whitehead
UTEP News Service
This year the National Science Foundation (NSF) offered six University of Texas at El Paso students and alumni the prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship – a record number of recipients for the University. More than 16,000 students across the nation applied to the program, while only 2,000 fellowships were awarded.
“The vast majority of these awards go to students at top-tier research universities,” said John Wiebe, Ph.D., UTEP associate provost. “The record number of awards to UTEP students this year speaks to the amazing accomplishments of the successful applicants and the growing success of the institution’s research mission.”
The NSF program 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 hefty $32,000 annual stipend, plus $12,000 to the university the graduate is attending to pay for tuition and fees.
In addition to the six fellowship recipients, three current students received Honorable Mentions from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The designation is considered a significant national academic achievement as well.
“The Graduate Research Fellowship is a prestigious and highly competitive award,” Wiebe said. “It requires that recipients have excellent academic preparation and exposure to cutting-edge research, and it requires strong mentorship from faculty researchers.”
The following are the recipients of the 2015 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship:
Amorita Marie Armendariz
Degree Pursuing: Ph.D. in Biological Sciences – Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UTEP
Fascinated by the Alaskan Arctic, Armendariz travels north frequently to conduct research related to the impacts of climate change. In pursuit of a doctoral degree, she will study interactions between Arctic freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, like creeks, ponds and lakes, and how the permafrost (a frozen layer of soil) below them is thawing and releasing nutrients as the region warms. The process also could lead to the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Armendariz plans to take multiple field samples to calculate the rate at which the greenhouse gases are entering the atmosphere and to better understand if the phenomenon will have an impact on climate at a global scale.
Adriana Carolina Camacho
Degree Pursuing: Ph.D. in Computer Science at UTEP
UTEP Research Mentor: David Novick, Ph.D.
Camacho graduated as one of the top College of Engineering students in 2014 with a B.S. in computer science. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the same field at the University. In her research proposal to the NSF, Camacho suggested studying and implementing gestures in the virtual characters she creates using computer code and motion capture technology. This form of nonverbal communication is essential to improve the character’s naturalness and effectiveness, Camacho believes. The researcher also will work on developing more complete body language in virtual characters.
Degree Pursuing: Ph.D. in Biological Sciences – Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UTEP
UTEP Research Mentor: Michael Moody, Ph.D.
In her proposal to the NSF, budding ecologist and evolutionary biologist Garcia suggested learning more about the relationship between plants and microbes. Garcia will particularly focus on a parasitic orchid known as spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculate) and how it evolved on the Sky Islands, a group of mountains in the Southwest United States. Located in a unique geographical setting with high rainfall and a cool climate, the orchids evolved in genetic isolation from others of its kind that are distributed throughout the U.S. Garcia will primarily focus on how the plant’s evolution was affected by microbial communities in the soil in the area, hoping to learn more about this plant-microbe relationship.
Degree Pursuing: Ph.D. in Astronomy at Harvard University (beginning fall 2015)
UTEP Research Mentor: Paul Mason, Ph.D.
Gomez will graduate from UTEP in May 2015 with a B.S. in physics. In his application to the NSF program, the young physicist proposed searching for low-mass black holes in the galaxy. Gomez is interested in the topic because of a conundrum that many astronomers are perplexed by – when a very massive star dies, it leaves behind a black hole; a less massive star leaves behind a neutron star. While the galaxy is distributed with more low-mass stars than high-mass stars, the distribution of black holes and neutron stars does not exactly match this. At Harvard University, Gomez suggested learning more about the behavior of black holes and why there is a strange gap in the distribution of black holes and neutron stars.
Degree Pursuing: Ph.D. in Biological Sciences at Columbia University
UTEP Research Mentor: Rosa Maldonado, Ph.D.
Gutierrez-Vargas graduated from UTEP with a B.S. in cellular and molecular biology in 2013. Upon her acceptance to Columbia University, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to live in New York City. With her new NSF Graduate Fellowship, the young biologist plans to study the naked mole rat, a rodent known for good health and an exceptionally long lifespan of up to 31 years. She’ll compare the critter to a tuco-tuco, another rodent that shares similar molecular biological characteristics. Gutierrez-Vargas hopes her research provides novel insights into the mechanisms that control aging, which could be important for human research.
Sanethia Velma Thomas
Degree Pursuing: Ph.D. in Computer Information Science and Engineering from the University of Florida
UTEP Mentor: Maceo C. Dailey Jr., Ph.D.
Thomas has come a long way since she graduated from UTEP in May 2002 with a Bachelor of Business Administration. The former athletic scholar is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from the University of Florida. As a woman, minority and first-generation college student, Thomas plans to aid other historically underrepresented groups in the computer sciences with her NSF fellowship. Thomas will develop a resource to help minorities realize their potential in the field. Dubbed the Expert Learning System, the program will align students’ existing strengths and abilities with computer science skills, giving participants the confidence to believe they can make it as a computer scientist.
2015 Honorable Mentions:
Chenoa Dara Arico
Degree Pursuing: Ph.D. in Biological Science – Pathobiology at UTEP
UTEP Research Mentor: Hugues Ouellet, Ph.D.
Arico is currently studying Mycobacterium tuberculosis and how it survives once in the human body. The bacteria has been shown to break down cholesterol molecules to gain energy, which is necessary for the disease to persist in the lungs of those who are chronically infected. Arico will focus on M. tuberculosis and a similar bacterial species known as M. smegmatis to understand gene regulation differences between the two. She hopes to learn what evolutionary adaptations occurred for M. tuberculosis to be able to degrade cholesterol and survive in humans.
Dominic Louis DeSantis
Degree Pursuing: M.S. in Biological Sciences – Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UTEP
UTEP Research Mentor: Jerry D. Johnson, Ph.D.
With a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology from Texas State University, DeSantis moved to El Paso to complete his higher education at UTEP. DeSantis frequents the University’s Indio Mountains Research Station near Van Horn to study the western diamondback rattlesnake in its natural, desert habitat. His goal is to learn how climate conditions, vegetation and rodent communities affect the rattlesnakes. DeSantis hopes that by studying these variables with tools like remote sensing, he can project how future changes, such as climate change, will impact the snakes.
Sandra Andrea Salinas
Degree Pursuing: Ph.D. in Molecular Medicine and Translational Research at Baylor College of Medicine (beginning fall 2015)
UTEP Research Mentor: Manuel Llano, Ph.D.
After graduating with a B.S. in clinical laboratory science from UTEP, Salinas will pursue a doctoral degree at Baylor College of Medicine. While here she has had several undergraduate research experiences, including studying how two proteins are critical for the function of HIV. Her portion of the project was to verify that eliminating the two proteins would lead to a reduction of the virus’ strength. The research suggests a new potential target in the fight against HIV. In graduate school, Salinas may pursue a means to improve molecular responses to leukemia treatments to block the disease’s progression.
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