Research Science and Technology

Graduate students win prestigious fellowships

Three students in the College of Arts and Sciences have been recognized with National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.
NSF Graduate Research Fellows

Graduate students, from left, Hunter Howell, Brianna Almeida, and Emmanuel Medrano. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

Athula Wikramanayake, professor and chair of biology in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, said it’s a big deal when one student is awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. 

“Winning two is an even bigger deal, but winning three is really, really unusual,” said Wikramanayake. “It also says a lot about who their mentors are.” 

Graduate students Hunter Howell, Brianna Almeida, and Emmanuel Medrano—who are all in the College of Arts and Sciences—are the University’s most recent recipients of the federally funded fellowships. 

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program recognizes and supports graduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees. In addition to a three-year annual stipend, the student’s institution receives a grant as well. Selected students also gain access to an immense collection of professional development opportunities over the course of their graduate career. 

Brianna Almeida

Brianna AlmeidaFor assistant professor Michelle Afkhami, this is the second time a mentee of hers has been selected. Last year, Kasey Kieswetter received the fellowship. This year it is Brianna Almeida, a doctoral student in the biology department. Almeida, a McKnight Doctoral Fellow, is studying the way plants interact with many kinds of organisms, including fungi. 

“Currently, I’m studying morning glories, which form an association with specific fungi, called endophytes, that live on their leaves,” said Almeida, who was inspired by literature and scientist Keith Clay, chair of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University. “My main goal is to determine if the association between morning glories and their endophyte scales up to affect, and to determine whether it affects which pollinators visit and how many.” 

The fellowship application requires you to write a personal letter and a research proposal. Almeida’s mentor, Afkhami, assisted in the writing process. 

“She showed me how not to sell myself short in my personal statement and to take pride in the work I’ve done so far,” said Almeida. “I came to my mentor with many drafts before she and I accepted the final one the day before the award was due.” 

Emmanuel Medrano

Emmanuel MedranoEmmanuel Medrano is a doctoral candidate who is studying how behaviors, from how we feel to how our body moves, are controlled by our brain. Medrano, who is also a McKnight Doctoral Fellow, said the goal of his research and that of many other neuroscientists is to understand how individual neurons communicate with each other to elicit a behavior.

“Since the human brain is very complex, I work with Caenorhabditis elegans, a microscopic worm that grows up to one millimeter in length,” said Medrano, who expressed feeling both disbelief and happiness when he heard he won the fellowship. “In this way, I can visually see how the neural activity of the different neurons in a neural circuit influences a behavior.”

Throughout Medrano’s education he became fascinated with the idea that the four simple molecules that make up our DNA control how we develop and define who we are. His interests were further nurtured at the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines at Massachusetts Institute of Technology during a summer research program that he participated in. 

At UM, his mentor, assistant professor of biology Kevin Collins, delivered a helping hand throughout the entire application process.

“In science, being able to effectively communicate your research is one of the most important skills, and, with Kevin’s guidance, I have gradually been working toward improving it,” said Medrano. 

Hunter Howell  

Hunter HowellA doctoral student in the Department of Biology, Hunter Howell conducts research that focuseses on understanding the impact of various Everglades restoration programs on herpetofaunal communities. One of the reptiles he works with is a brightly colored chameleon named “Mama.” 

“They’re really hard to find because everyone’s super secretive about their locations,” said Howell. 

Howell’s research stems from his passion for interactions among organisms and their environment. He received his bachelor’s degree in organismal ecology from Towson University. Like Almeida, Howell’s mentor, assistant professor Chris Searcy, was also a NSF-GRFP winner. 

In addition to this acheivement, during the 2017-2018 academic year, Hunter was awarded the most prestigous award offered by the University of Miami's Graduate School - the Dean's Fellowship

The next round of NSF-GRFP applications will open in fall 2019.