Eleven UCSC Students Receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowships for 2018

The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions.

June 11, 2018

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This year the UC Santa Cruz campus is home to eleven new recipients of the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program award. 

Known as the NSF GRFP, the award is one of the oldest graduate fellowships of its kind and is given to scientists at the beginning of their academic and professional careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In just the past five years, UC Santa Cruz has had over 75 recipients of the NSF GRFP award. 

UC Santa Cruz awardees represent a diverse group of academic programs on campus, including Anthropology, Astronomy, Chemistry, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Psychology. Two undergraduates, Andres Pinedo from the Latin American and Latino Studies major, and Raul Reyes Hueros from the Physics and Mathematics majors, received the GRFP as well. The award will carry them on to their graduate careers at the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively. Four first-generation college graduates are included in this group of awardees. 

Our scholars will use the award to pursue research that will advance and improve the lives of others, increase our understanding of the world and the universe around us, and to set forth on a path of discovery to increase positive research outcomes for future generations of scientists. 

Nationally a total of 2,000 awards were given this year, out of 12,000 applications. Recipients are given three years of funding over a total of five years to support their graduate training.

Below are the UC Santa Cruz NSF GRFP awardees for 2018. We congratulate our scholars on this excellent achievement! 


Zackery Briesemeister

My research at UC Santa Cruz in the Astronomy doctoral program is focused on astronomical science and instrumentation relating to the Arizona Lenslets for Exoplanet Spectroscopy (ALES) -- which is the first lenslet-based integral field spectrograph to work at 3-5 microns, the mid-wave thermal infrared band. Extending the spectroscopic characterization of exoplanets into these infrared wavelengths is critical for determining properties of young gas giants, such as effective temperature, cloud coverage, convection and non-equilibrium carbon chemistry. With ALES on the Large Binocular Telescope, we can now obtain the first spatially resolved 3-5 micron spectra of directly imaged young gas giant exoplanets and substellar companions, in regimes where the host star can be millions of times brighter than their companion and thus difficult to view otherwise. I will collect 3-5 micron spectra of all observable, directly imaged exoplanets, and combine their spectra with existing near-infrared spectra, in order to characterize each exoplanet with the most complete sampling of their spectral energy distribution. I will also be working on maximizing the fidelity of data reduction for high-contrast environments from upgrading hardware and software. This includes introducing a coronagraphic mode to occult host-star light, and an interferometric mode to use the entire 23.4 m effective aperture of the Large Binocular Telescope.

I chose to pursue a graduate degree because it is a critical career milestone for a research astronomer. When weighing whether I would want to pursue astronomy or more lucrative options, I found myself surprised enough that astronomy was even a contender. It quickly became apparent that other options would simply not satisfy what I wanted: intellectual stimulation. Now I am working on something that interests me, finding out where I want to be – what goals I want to achieve - and developing the skills that will help me get there.

Compared to all of my other opportunities for graduate school, UC Santa Cruz fit the bill for everything I wanted: cutting-edge research, access to telescopes and resources, and a healthy department environment. The growth of the department in both faculty members and graduate students also increased the appeal of UCSC. The number of graduate students in the Astronomy department nearly doubled with my incoming class because these attributes appealed to them as well.


Melissa Cronin

I am a doctoral student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program at UC Santa Cruz, working in the Coastal Conservation Action Lab. With the support of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award, I plan to study the ecological and social implications of incidental bycatch of vulnerable marine species in artisanal and industrial fisheries, with a focus on bycatch of threatened manta rays. Broadly, I am interested in the effective conservation of marine species and resources by way of strategic conservation actions.

I began my career in science journalism covering climate, politics, and wildlife crime. I am interested in how storytelling is part of the scientific process, and the ways in which collective narratives shape how science is perceived and acted upon. I came to UC Santa Cruz because the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program and the Coastal Conservation Action Lab offered an open-minded, forward thinking approach to applied marine and coastal conservation, unlike that offered at any other university.


Arina Favilla

As an NSF Graduate Research Fellow in Dr. Dan Costa’s lab in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program at UC Santa Cruz, I study how diving marine mammals are adapted to the marine environment, and how they might be affected by anthropogenic disturbances and environmental change. My research will focus on the diving behavior and physiology of northern elephant seals, which are one of the most extreme divers among pinnipeds. By attaching biologgers to the seals, I will collect diving and physiological data to investigate the paradoxical interaction of their thermoregulatory responses with the dive response.

The dive response inhibits heat dissipation in active marine mammals, which are generally well-insulated animals. To understand their abilities to manage these conflicting physiological adaptations, I will examine the plasticity of thermoregulatory responses in diving marine mammals in relation to behavioral changes provoked by environmental variables, such as water temperature and human-caused noise. Diving marine mammals are facing increasing anthropogenic disturbances that disrupt their diving behavior and can result in physiological imbalances or even fatalities. By better understanding their physiological adaptations while diving, we can better predict and mitigate the effects of anthropogenic disturbances.

My interest in the ocean and its diverse fauna was sparked at a young age at a small coastal town in my native country of Brazil. As an undergraduate, I had a unique double major in marine science and biomedical engineering (BME). Realizing I wanted to study marine mammals and begin a research career, I knew that graduate school would allow me to explore my interests, enhance my abilities to conduct quality research, and set me on a path to establishing a career in academia. I decided to come to UC Santa Cruz because my interest in physiological adaptations of freely diving marine mammals aligns with the Costa Lab’s expertise in using biologging techniques to study the behavioral and physiological ecology of marine mammals. The lab’s proximity to Año Nuevo State Park will allow me to conduct extensive fieldwork with northern elephant seals. Another reason I chose UCSC was for professional development opportunities. During my first year here, I have already participated in the Institute for Scientist and Engineer Educators Professional Development Program at UCSC, which enhanced my abilities to develop active-learning teaching plans. I plan to take advantage of other opportunities, such as UCSC’s Graduate Leadership Certificate Program, which will help me refine my leadership, management, and professional skills to be a successful researcher and principal investigator. Moreover, my personal experiences as a multicultural student drives my commitment to fostering a future lab of diverse and talented individuals within a collaborative environment. UCSC offers the Diversity & Inclusion Certificate Program, which emphasizes how to promote a diverse and inclusive environment, and as a Hispanic Serving Institution, UCSC is the perfect campus where I can motivate Hispanic women and other underrepresented students to overcome social stigmas and persist in STEM. While deciding to embark on the graduate school journey and picking a school was no easy decision, I can confidently say now that I made the right decision. UC Santa Cruz is the ideal place for me to foster my research and career interests and I am looking forward to the next few years as I continue to gain new research and professional skills.


Giselle Laiduc

I am a second-year doctoral student in Social Psychology working in the Culture and Achievement Collaborative at UCSC. I develop cultural interventions to increase the retention of underrepresented students (e.g., first-generation students, students of color, women) in STEM. In particular, I am interested in how the competitive nature of STEM fields relates to student retention and how framing messages in different ways can impact student outcomes. I also investigate the types of attributions people make to explain disparate academic outcomes, and how these attributions affect their perceptions of students and their resulting behaviors.

I am a first-generation American. My father, like other immigrants, left Vietnam in search of better opportunity. My mother, a war refugee, immigrated to the United States because of repeated bombings during the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. From an early age, my parents instilled in me the importance of education. My mother emphasized that, unlike her home, once I acquired an education, it could never be taken away from me. At the University of Arizona, I worked in a social psychology research lab where I learned to apply psychological theory in school interventions. I implemented these research frameworks as a certified tutor in college and as a full-time tutor/instructor after college. Over the years, my students shared with me their interactions and experiences in STEM classrooms. This motivated me to pursue graduate school, where I seek to explore novel, long-lasting ways of changing the academic landscape to engage and retain larger groups of diverse students.

As a graduate student, I am committed to using research as a way to empower students. I applied to UCSC to work with Dr. Rebecca Covarrubias, who has expertise in examining how social representations of race, gender, and social class in educational contexts shape student outcomes. Additionally, UCSC’s Social Psychology program emphasizes action-oriented research, which will prepare me to produce meaningful work and to create institutional change. I seek to develop strategies to foster inclusive spaces where all students have equitable opportunities to succeed. My aim is to not only contribute to theory in social psychology and education, but also to bridge the gap between theory and practice through teaching, mentorship, research, and service.


Jocelyn Macho

I am a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz in the Chemistry doctoral program. The aims of my research project are centered around exploiting NP-34, a novel, boron-containing natural product isolated from marine Streptomyces (an Actinobacteria which is used as source for antibiotics for humans), to both discover the target receptors in mosquitos of toxins and to pinpoint the most potent, mosquito-selective analog to employ in “greener” pesticides. This natural product exhibited selective toxicity to mosquito cells. Preliminary data demonstrated an 80% kill rate at 50 nm against mosquito cells and selective over moth, fly, and human cells. Thus, using click chemistry, we plan to expose mosquito-specific vulnerabilities. We are also in the process of both isolating and synthesizing various analogs of NP-34 for structure-activity relationship studies to determine maximum efficacy of our compound.

I decided to go to graduate school as I have always had the desire to teach, and since high school I have known that I wanted to be a professor. Being a first-generation college student and also a Hispanic student, I wanted to serve as an inspiration for younger students, to show that you are not bound by the modifiers “first-generation” or “minority.” I have also always wanted to make an impact in human health. My mother is diabetic and disabled, and watching her struggles throughout my entire life inspired my efforts to make an impact in the health community. I decided that through research in the biomedical realm I could help shape the medical world through pharmaceuticals. I chose UC Santa Cruz so that I could work for Dr. John MacMillan, whose work focuses on exploiting the biological activities of marine-derived natural products. With my work in graduate school I believe that in the future I will impact the field of natural products and help develop target-selective and effective medications, using not only my own work in the laboratory, but also by being a teacher and mentor for future scientists to do the same.


Andres Pinedo

After earning my bachelor’s degree in Latin American and Latino Studies at UC Santa Cruz this spring, I will be attending the University of Michigan to pursue a Ph.D. in Education and Psychology. I plan to conduct research investigating the lasting impacts of stereotypes and stigma on marginalized students’ academic motivation and performance. Specifically, factors that mitigate the negative impacts of stereotypes and stigma, such as critical consciousness (i.e., the critical awareness of social inequity and the agency to challenge structures of inequity), and positive ethnic-racial identity development. Previous research suggests that critical consciousness is associated with positive developmental outcomes for marginalized youth; I hope to expand upon this line of research by taking a contextual approach to critical consciousness. I am particularly interested in exploring whether cues of critical consciousness (e.g., professors who communicate their understanding of structural inequity to explain academic disparities) serve to create a sense of belonging for marginalized students. My research is grounded in the Lewinian approach, which emphasizes theoretically-driven psychological research to addresses social issues.

Being a first-generation college student, I did not know much about universities and the differences between them. When I was deciding between colleges, I chose UC Santa Cruz because it was far enough from home to gain independence and live in a new environment. As I look back now, it was the best decision I have made in my life, and I definitely would not be where I am today had it not been for all of the experiences, opportunities, and mentors I had at UC Santa Cruz. It is an amazing place, with even more amazing people. Because of my experiences here, I will be continuing my education as a graduate student. I was introduced to research at UCSC and realized that I wanted to pursue an academic career. The job of asking interesting and important questions - and then developing plans to answer them - is one of the most exciting things.


April Reber

I am a doctoral student in the Anthropology program at UC Santa Cruz, researching speech rights and politics. In the internet age of unsurpassed speech freedoms, the German state stands as a bulwark of speech regulation and censorship. Effective 1 January 2018, Germany’s new law, the NetzDG, requires social media companies to remove “hate speech” within 24 hours or be fined 50 million euros. Some argue that these legal measures strengthen Germany’s image as a “militant democracy” – a country that eliminates political voices judged to be “enemies” of democracy by the government. Germany is not alone: many western democracies, including the U.S., have pursued such policies, which are upheld by supra-state courts in the EU and UN. Directly engaging these policies are populist and nationalist movements whose members argue that they have the right to speak xenophobic, nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and that they uphold the democracy through defying state “militancy.” My project uses ethnographic fieldwork, statistical analysis, and geographical mapping to investigate how speech rights are at the epicenter of supra-state, state, and citizen political competition.

I had been studying anthropology for my bachelor's degree and spent a year during my studies gaining practical experience in the Netherlands. While volunteering in the Netherlands, I worked with a French-speaking woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A refugee, she left her family behind and made her way to a shared refugee camp trailer. Observing this woman interact with other refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, and with Dutch officials and social workers, helped to put my education in perspective. Because of my limited academic and research background, I had no chance of influencing the structural forces that shaped this woman’s life. All I could do was help interpret and share friendship. While my undergraduate training helped me to see the structural issues that this woman faced, such as immigration policies, social perspectives on immigrants, and language barriers, I realized that I needed further experience and professional credibility to conduct research that would lead to systemic change. I decided then that after completing my BA, I would pursue a doctorate in anthropology and conduct research that would reach broader audiences.

I chose to attend UC Santa Cruz because the Anthropology department is both academically rigorous and socially focused. Led by these priorities, the department has encouraged me to collaborate with interdisciplinary colleagues and volunteer in the Santa Cruz community. Because of the size of the department, I have benefited from substantial one-on-one mentorship from my advisors and committee members and have enjoyed department engagement with my research.


Raul Reyes Hueros

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz this spring with bachelors degrees in Physics and Mathematics, I will continue my education in the Ph.D. program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics (BMB) at the University of Pennsylvania with plans to research multiprotein complex and the mechanisms of macromolecular machines, using a mixture of experimental and computational methods. 

Growing up with two older siblings in a single-parent household in Puerto Rico can only entail a sea of hand-me-downs. But between all the baggy pants and worn out t-shirts, there was a collection of used toys. I remember how most of my time was spent dismantling the walkie-talkies and toy cars to find the mechanisms that made them work. Of course, I would always carefully rebuild them and surprisingly some survived the process. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this curiosity would develop into a pursuit of higher education.

During my senior year of high school, my mother had received an employment opportunity for the biotechnological company Genentech in San Francisco, California. This was a blessing considering the economic crisis of 2005 in Puerto Rico that created one of the largest unemployment rates in the island’s history. My mother accepted the position in California and I left with her, leaving behind my two older brothers -- an unfortunate but common consequence. Through the years, family and friends who had lost their jobs or were in danger of being let go due to insufficient funding migrated to the US in search of opportunities, and now it was our turn. 

My ambition to learn about the natural world led me to study physics and mathematics at the University of California Santa Cruz. I pursued these majors with no structured education in the field, having only the knowledge I sought independent from my school in Puerto Rico. I began my undergraduate career without being able to take any classes in my proposed physics major, which lead to an atypical curriculum. Taking all my under-division math courses in a year gave me the confidence and the ability to pursue my intended major. Little did I know that this would ignite a new passion that would allow me to complete both majors in three years - a triumph I dedicate to the misfortunate toys that got ruined while I discovered my passion for learning. By the beginning of my sophomore year I had gained an immense appreciation for mathematics, and I wanted more people to have the opportunity to experience it as well. I became a Teaching Assistant at Pescadero Middle School in the small farming town, working to motivate the students towards pursuing higher education. Throughout the rest of the year I participated in the UCSC Project for Inmate Education, a UCSC Astronomy and Physics department program that dedicates time to providing free education to inmates in local jails, where students attend class because they want to improve themselves and become a contributing member of society. These humbling experiences allowed me the opportunity to recognize the excitement of being an educator. I believe sharing knowledge makes a difference; it made me optimistic of a future where I could do the same in Puerto Rico. I am grateful for my experiences and will continue to let my education be the first step towards the education of others.


Matthew Siebert

As a graduate student in the UC Santa Cruz Astronomy doctoral program, I have developed an open source, relational database of supernova observations to investigate the underlying physics of these phenomena. Measurements of the Type Ia Supernovae (SNe Ia) were used to show that the expansion of the universe is being accelerated, by the enigmatic “dark energy". Understanding the large diversity in optical properties of SNe Ia - their luminosities vary by an order of magnitude - is essential for improving their cosmological utility. For example, observed SNe Ia show variations in velocity, carbon presence, polarization, and blue/redshifted features. These SNe are currently calibrated using photometric properties (light curve shape and color). However, there remains an intrinsic scatter or noise in the data, that limits their utility as “distance indicators.” There must be a physical reason for this relationship, and spectra provide far more information compared to photometric calibrations, which is critical to investigating phenomena like these. I plan to use this large spectral database to look for trends that may have previously been hidden under the noise of individual spectra.

I chose to pursue a graduate degree to apply my experience and knowledge gained as an undergraduate in physics. My experience in the MIT Haystack Observatory REU program and my senior experimental astronomy course introduced me to a wide range of astronomical problems and rewarding research. I chose to come to UC Santa Cruz because it has one of the top graduate programs in astronomy. This program emphasizes research early on in your graduate career, as well as leading a well-balanced lifestyle.


Ibette Valle

I am a second-year doctoral student in Social Psychology at UC Santa Cruz. I study how first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds are affected by social, cultural, and familial factors during the transition to and through college. I am particularly interested in how social determinants of health (e.g., work conditions, health care access) affect family dynamics, educational trajectories, and health outcomes of first-generation college students from Latinx and migrant farm-working backgrounds. Broadly, my goals are to develop strategies and programs to improve the academic, social, and mental health experiences of low-income, first-generation students of color as they navigate educational spaces that often fail to understand their experiences and challenges. I focus my efforts on research that supports working-class first-generation college students and students of color. Through the use of various methods, it is my hope to utilize research as a tool for advocating for my communities by identifying inequitable practices in education.

I graduated from the University of Washington and moved to Santa Cruz for the social psychology PhD program. I chose UC Santa Cruz to work alongside my academic “shero” Dr. Rebecca Covarrubias, and because the Social Psychology doctoral program is grounded in a mission of social justice and action-oriented research. My lived experience as a Latina first-generation college student from an immigrant family, and my time working with students from similar backgrounds is what led me to graduate school. My parents and siblings came to the United States as immigrants and we made our living on the fields as migrant farmworkers in California and Washington. When I started school, I was my happiest in the classroom, yet I spent a lot of time in my youth wondering why what we did at home was “different” from the other kids in my classes. When I would speak about my desire to go to college my parents couldn’t understand what it meant or how someone like me could do something like that, it was unheard of. When I got to college, I understood the disconnect. What I experienced as a college student was unlike anything I had known in my working-class family and I struggled to bridge the two worlds. This little bit of my past, along with incredible and memorable experiences mentoring other first-generation college students throughout college is what drives my social justice research interests here at UCSC. Here, I am sharpening my expertise in sociocultural theories of achievement, and learning to draw a strong link between theory and practice that can directly serve student communities that are underrepresented and/or misrepresented.


Doriane Weiler

As a graduate student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology doctoral program at UC Santa Cruz, I will be using the NSF GRFP to explore how reproductive behaviors affect ecology, using mosquitofish as a model system. Mosquitofish have a coercive mating system in which male fish continuously pursue mating opportunities with female fish, which reduces female feeding efficiency. I plan to run an experiment using mesocosms (experimental ponds) to test whether these interactions between male and female mosquitofish mediate their impact on aquatic trophic cascades. In addition, I will be conducting behavioral assays and field observations on fish to examine population-level differences in harassment behavior in 10 ponds around Santa Cruz County and Bishop, CA.

Growing up along the coast of San Diego, I was fascinated by the abundant aquatic critters I watched in tidepools and local ponds. When I started my undergraduate education at U.C. Berkeley, a professor noticed my excitement in an oceanography class and offered an opportunity to study the biological carbon pump on a week-long research cruise in the Channel Islands. This experience was my first opportunity to conduct hands-on field work and observe the process of science, and I was immediately hooked. I pursued research opportunities studying everything from mantis shrimp mating behavior to marine biomechanics, all of which reinforced my interest in attending graduate school and pursuing a research career. Ultimately, I chose U.C. Santa Cruz because of the outstanding faculty, cutting-edge research, and friendly collaborative attitudes within the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. I continue to be delighted by the camaraderie and brilliance of my colleagues and cannot wait to see what the next few years bring as I complete my PhD!