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UTEP Students, Alumni Earn NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Last Updated on April 06, 2021 at 12:00 AM

Originally published April 06, 2021

By UC Staff

UTEP Communications

A half-dozen students and alumni from The University of Texas at El Paso are recipients of 2021 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships in recognition of their potential to be high achieving scientists and engineers early in their careers.

The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowships Program recently announced that it accepted four students and two alumni from The University of Texas at El Paso into its program that funds individuals who plan to pursue graduate degrees in certain STEM fields. The 2021 awardees with UTEP ties are clockwise from top left, David Esparza, Alma Idali Hernández, Rubyann Olmos, Gerardo Estrada Zavala, Sebastian Vargas and Arturo Rodriguez.
The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowships Program recently announced that it accepted four students and two alumni from The University of Texas at El Paso into its program that funds individuals who plan to pursue graduate degrees in certain STEM fields. The 2021 awardees with UTEP ties are clockwise from top left, David Esparza, Alma Idali Hernández, Rubyann Olmos, Gerardo Estrada Zavala, Sebastian Vargas and Arturo Rodriguez.

Alma Idali Hernández, Rubyann Olmos, Arturo Rodriguez, Sebastian Vargas each received fellowships to support their research endeavors through the NSF program as they pursue their undergraduate and graduate education at UTEP.

UTEP alumni, David Esparza and Gerardo Estrada Zavala also received fellowships toward their graduate education. Esparza is a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a minor in psychology. Zavala is a doctoral student in chemical biology at Cornell University who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in biomedical engineering.

The overall goal of the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is to recruit individuals into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields while broadening participation in science and engineering of underrepresented groups, including women, minorities, persons with disabilities and veterans.

“This prestigious NSF program has high standards and serves as confirmation that our students’ achievements and aspirations are consistent with the gold standard that NSF sets for its awardees, said Patricia Nava, Ph.D., interim dean of UTEP’s College of Engineering. “Arturo and Sebastian serve as role models for their peers, in setting their sights on higher education and the ground-breaking research and potential career opportunities that this education facilitates. The College of Engineering is extremely proud of Arturo and Sebastian and look forward to their future accomplishments.”

The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing full-time research-based master's and doctoral degrees in STEM education. The GRFP provides three years of support for the graduate education of individuals who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements in STEM.

“We are extremely proud of our UTEP fellowship recipients. The NSF GRFP is a highly competitive award that typically selects the best and brightest applicants from the top U.S. institutions, said Robert Kirken, Ph.D., dean of the College of Science. “To have six awardees from UTEP is exciting and I am tremendously pleased for our faculty that have created an educational environment that allows for our students to compete at the national level.”

Hernández is currently working toward her bachelor’s degree in microbiology at UTEP with plans to graduate in spring 2021. The NSF fellowship will allow her to continue her education and purse a doctoral degree in natural resources: ecosystem science at the University of New Hampshire and focus her research on Arctic tundra soils in a changing climate.

“UTEP has been more than what I ever imagined, it allowed me to pursue my academic goals as a researcher. All the research opportunities provided by UTEP have been a valuable input to my professional and academic development,” Hernández said. “I consider that all the experience I acquired as an undergraduate research assistant, as well as the constant motivation from my mentors and professors was a key component to my success in this fellowship.”

As a child, Olmos always had a natural affinity for the sciences and knew she would grow up doing something scientific. She had the opportunity as a UTEP undergraduate to conduct research in the Nanomagnetic Materials Laboratory (NMML) under Srinivasa R. Singamaneni, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics.

“I was incredibly grateful and in disbelief when I heard that I was awarded the fellowship as I would essentially have the opportunity to choose any physics graduate program,” Olmos said. “This fellowship will give me the support to be able to completely immerse myself into research and make meaningful progress in my scientific career.”

In 2020, Olmos earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from UTEP and is now pursuing her master’s degree from the University with future plans to join a doctoral program with a focus on quantum information science. She would like to establish a research career and contribute to the inclusion and diversity of women and minorities in STEM and leadership.

Rodriguez earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UTEP in 2020. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering and plans to obtain a research position with Sandia National Laboratories in the field of thermal-fluid or aero sciences when he graduates in 2024.

Rodriguez is optimistic about the research opportunities this fellowship will expose him to as well as the quality of career opportunities enhanced by this recognition.

“This fellowship has given me a platform where I could ask any employer, ‘Would you like me to work for you? I am an NSF GRFP fellow.’ And they would probably say yes,” Rodriguez said. “This is the greatest thing that ever happened to me in the world, without the support of my family, mentors and friends, I would never have achieved this. The support I have had from the community has been immense. Thanks to the Air Force Office of Scientific Research for all their support throughout my career. Without their help, I could never have become the researcher that I am now. Their researchers’ guidance and financial support throughout my career have been invaluable. Especially, Brett Pokines, Stacie Williams and Ventaka Gudimetla.”

Vargas is working toward his master’s in mechanical engineering. He will join a long line of professional mechanical engineers in his family, including both his parents and sister, when he graduates in 2022. He is eager to participate in both academic and professional development experiences made possible through the GRFP.

“The GRFP will enable me to take on riskier paths in my studies, research and future career while not being worried about finances, Vargas said. “It is a strong achievement that has a certain amount of weight in academia and industry, but in the end, it is up to me to contribute to my future and capitalize on the opportunities that come up.”

“The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is a highly competitive award that is awarded to approximately 2,000 STEM graduate students a year,” said Jack Chessa, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “These are highly sought after by students, faculty advisers and universities throughout the nation — historically, one-third of the awards are to students in the top 10 ranked universities in the country. The fact that two students from the mechanical engineering program were awarded this fellowship this year is a testament to the quality of our graduate and undergraduate students, their ability to compete nationally with the best students, and to the work and research of our faculty who have supported and fostered these students. We are very proud of Arturo and Sebastian and are very excited to see what they accomplish with the support of this fellowship.”

To be eligible for the NSF program, individuals must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national or permanent resident, and they must intend to enroll in a research-based graduate degree program in an eligible field of study in STEM or STEM education.

UTEP’s Office of Student Fellowships and Awards (OSFA) will launch a series of spring/summer workshops for interested NSF GRFP applicants with an information session co-hosted by the Graduate School at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 8, 2021. The workshops are open to all but are aimed at seniors who will enter a graduate program in an eligible field in fall 2021, and graduate students who have completed no more than 12 months of graduate study by the fall application deadlines. 

Event speakers will include Stephen Crites, Ph.D., dean of the UTEP’s Graduate School, and Jaime Regis, NSF GRFP Fellow and mechanical engineering doctoral student. Other presenters will discuss upcoming deadlines and how to craft a competitive application.

Click here to learn more about the NSF GRFP.