April 4, 2022

This year, fourteen stellar graduate students in Life Sciences have been selected for the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) award – an award that comes with an annual stipend, plus tuition support for three years.

The NSF GRFP award “recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students… who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or STEM education.”

Here, some of our GRFP fellows provide insight into their research and why they are pursuing a Ph.D. in the life sciences.

Austin M. Betancourt

(she, her, hers)
Field of study:  Marine Biology

 The GRFP award will allow me to invest time in mentoring the next generation of diverse marine scientists while doing research, using genomic and epigenomic tools, to see how Dungeness crab populations have evolved and adapted to varied environmental conditions along the west coast of the U.S. The goal is to understand how these valuable crabs might respond to climate change and inform fisheries management. For me, it is critical not only to do research that is essential for the health of our oceans, but also to advocate for, and involve, those who are directly affected.

As a first generation student, I’m pursuing a PhD to show that it is possible to pursue your interests, and also pave a way for others. The PhD isn’t just for me. It’s for my family who did not have the chance to pursue an education. It’s for students like me who need to see someone with a background like mine to see that it can be done.

Elena Cannova

(she, her, hers)
Field of study:  Clinical Psychology

This award will help me build my research program around understanding how social contexts influence children’s stress regulation and their mental health. By understanding how community stress and support impacts families–and the development of emotion regulation in children–I hope to inform where interventions could be made to help promote healthy child development.

In addition to research, I also greatly enjoy teaching and mentoring, and hope to provide mentorship opportunities for undergraduate students interested in psychological research.

Belinda Chen, M.A. 

(she, her, hers)

Field of study:  Clinical Psychology – Social Psychology 

This award provides me with time and support to pursue research that will examine whether implicit bias influences first responder perceptions of youth experiencing mental health crises.

This research is important because it can be applied to promote equity in treatment of youth experiencing mental health problems, regardless of their race/ethnicity or their socioeconomic background. It may also be useful in understanding the role that police should or should not play in addressing mental health emergencies. 

I am pursuing a PhD with the goal of applying my training as a clinical scientist to increase access to and quality of mental health services for underserved populations.

Elaine Huang

(she, her, hers)
Field of study:  Bioinformatics and Computational Biology

Receiving this award was an exciting surprise for me, especially given the competitive applicant pool.

This award will allow me to study how double-stranded RNAs (dsRNAs) are regulated in our bodies. With this knowledge, we can better understand how our bodies are able to distinguish our own dsRNAs from those that are released by viruses, thus preventing inappropriate immune responses.

I am pursuing a PhD because I’ve always found learning new things to be such a satisfying and enriching process. With graduate school, I’m able to experience this thrill day-to-day!

Xochitl Ortiz Ross

(she, her, hers)

Field of study:  Ecology

The environment we experience early in life can profoundly affect our health, behavior, and lifespan in adulthood. This is as true for humans as it is for other animals. However, natural environments are complex, there are many factors at play, and not much research has investigated how experiencing multiple early-life stressors might affect the long term fitness or wellbeing of individuals in the wild.

A better understanding of these long-term impacts of early adversity will help us learn whether wild populations can cope with the many adversities they have to face, including climate change, urbanization, and habitat loss, and help us determine the best way to protect them.  
I love sharing my passion through training and mentorship and this PhD program has allowed me to do just that. Long term, I aim to be a research scientist either as a professor at a university or as director of a governmental/conservation research program. My goal is to further our knowledge of animal behavior to improve conservation efforts.

Kaia Sargent

Field of study:  Psychology – Cognitive Neuroscience

This award will allow me to pursue my research in neural oscillations (or “brain waves”) and how they interact with rhythms in our bodies, such as heartbeat. Investigating the coupling of physiological rhythms can help us understand how our brains and bodies communicate with one another, which may help us develop new ways to improve our mental and physical health.

I am pursuing a PhD in Clinical Psychology so that I can explore basic mechanisms of brain function and use our findings to inform mental health treatment.

Allison Schiffman

Field of study:  Systems and Molecular Biology

Many diseases are known to be associated with certain genes. But just having a specific gene in your genome doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the corresponding disease. How do cells control which genes are expressed?

My research addresses one small part of this mechanism, and together with everyone studying epigenomics and gene regulation, our findings will aid the development of new disease treatments and prevention. 

I enjoy doing interesting research to advance medical science while incorporating my background in both biology and mathematics. 

Xochitl Arlene Smola

(she, her, hers)

Field of study:  Psychology – Developmental Psychology

Receiving an award as prestigious as the NSF GRFP feels unreal. It truly is a reflection of the support from my family and the consistent guidance from my mentors, including Drs. Nancy Gonzales, Leah Doane, and Andrew Fuligni. I’m committed to utilizing the resources and training I gain as an awardee to focus on my scientific and personal values of promoting the positive development of underrepresented youth.

My research will expand our understanding of marginalization and the sources of strength Latinx youth employ during the transition to college. This research is important because Latinx communities are one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. and are increasingly enrolling in four-year colleges. The goal of our work is to help address the decades-long college graduation achievement gap impacting the broader Latinx community’s access to health and wealth through higher education.

Congratulations to all of Life Sciences’ graduate student GRFP awardees this year!

  • Austin Betancourt   Marine Biology (Advisor: Paul Barber)
  • Robin B. Blades    Neuropsychology (Advisor: Julienne Bower)
  • Elaine Huang   Bioinformatics and Computational Biology (Advisor: Grace Xiao)
  • Elena Cannova    Psychology – Clinical (Advisor: Steve Lee)
  • Belinda Chen    Clinical Psychology – Social Psychology (Advisor: Anna Lau)
  • Pamala Dayley    Clinical Psychology – Social Psychology (Advisor: Kerri Johnson)
  • Corinna Franco   Psychology – Cognitive Neuroscience (Advisor: Barbara Knowlton)
  • Christina Huber   Psychology – Social/Affective Neuroscience (Advisor: Matthew Lieberman)
  • Leezet Matos   Psychology – Social Psychology (Advisor: Matthew Lieberman)
  • Xochitl Ortiz Ross   Ecology (Advisor: Daniel Blumstein)
  • Jordan Parker   Psychology – Social Psychology (Advisor: Janet Tomiyama)
  • Kaia Sargent   Psychology – Cognitive Neuroscience (Advisor: Cindy Yee-Bradbury)
  • Allison Schiffman   Systems and Molecular Biology  (Advisor: Alexander Hoffman)
  • Xochitl Arlene Smola   Psychology – Developmental Psychology (Advisor: Andrew Fuligni)