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Black and Latinx Advocacy Council and CNS Announce Aspire Award Winners

Black and Latinx Advocacy Council and CNS Announce Aspire Award Winners

For more than a decade, the Aspire Awards have provided an occasion for faculty, staff and students to recognize undergraduate leaders in the College of Natural Sciences. The event celebrates undergraduate students from underrepresented groups in the sciences, recognizing their achievements in research, service and leadership. This year, 25 students were given Aspire awards in several categories. The event is a collaboration between the college's Office of Undergraduate Education and the student-led Black and Latinx Advocacy Council.

Michael Akaolisa, Leadership and Service Award, Senior, Biochemistry: As Natural Sciences Council's (NSC) outreach coordinator, Michael has worked to expand relationships with other organizations within the College of Natural Sciences. He led the NSC's 40 for 40 fundraising campaign for community outreach programs such as Young Scientists and Kids Who Code, career readiness, diversity and inclusion and student-faculty relations. This includes developing a grant proposal, helping formulate a fundraising video and recruiting NSC members as ambassadors to promote the campaign. Additionally, Michael developed a social media community spotlight initiative to highlight the work of BIPOC CNS student organizations. Over the past year, Michael's thoughtful, determined leadership style has encouraged NSC to take on new advocacy efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic and continue building a more inclusive, equitable space that is representative of the larger CNS community. Michael hopes to use his knowledge of biochemistry to dismantle health disparities and medical myths when he goes on to medical school.

Audra Collins, Staff and Faculty Choice Award, Leadership and Service Award and Inspire Award, Senior, Computer Science: Audra, while TAing for one of the most demanding core courses in the Department of Computer Science and serving as president of the Association of Black Computer Scientists (ABCS), has done a great deal of work on behalf of Black and Latinx students. Audra engaged effectively with faculty and staff to address issues around diversity and inclusion. She has maintained a strong alliance with the Hispanic Association of Computer Scientists, bringing together a diverse range of student voices to the larger department. She has also worked to create the Texas Computer Science Scholarships for Diversity that raised over $40,000. Audra's engagement with faculty and staff on diversity and inclusion initiatives has led to greater insights and communication between students and more members of the department than in the past, more informed approaches by faculty and staff on diversity initiatives, and greater insight for some faculty into student experiences. The HornRaiser initiative will likely have a major future impact on Black and Latinx students, having exceeded its fundraising goals.

Diana De La Torre, Inspire Award and Community Engagement Award, Senior, Computational Biology: Diana has worked to increase diversity in STEM in the College of Natural Sciences, UT and the greater Austin community. She is vice president of the Hispanic Association of Computer Scientists, where she creates workshops with other organizations and companies to help encourage students of underrepresented ethnicities to go into computer science. She also helps organize <Div> Day, a conference hosted at UT focused on promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM. As director, she reaches out to leaders in underrepresented communities to speak about relevant topics such as mental health in the workplace and how to overcome imposter syndrome. Outside of these projects, Diana works directly with those within the local community, such as GirlStart, to develop weekly STEM experiments and activities for elementary-age girls. She has also served as an instructor for Coding with Kids to teach programming to K-12 students. At UT, Diana works with students as a peer career coach to advise undergraduates on career and resume building, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds trying to find work opportunities in the tech industry.

Chineye Emeghara, Community Engagement Award, Senior, Computer Science: Chineye, who won the Microsoft Women in Computing Grace Hopper Award in 2018, has served as the outreach officer for the Association of Black Computer Scientists (ABCS) since 2017.She has spearheaded efforts to educate 6-12 graders about computer science through tours and workshops (often in conjunction with industry or outreach partners), planning <Div> Day and Culture Day, which focuses on exposing students to different aspects of computer science, as well as reaching out to UT students. Standing out amongst those events is one which Chineye conceived, managed and executed: in fall 2019 she arranged for ABCS to host underrepresented high schoolers on campus, where they got to tour the computer science department and meet students. Chineye is also a member of the University Leadership Network and a leader and program facilitator for Burnt Orange Leadership Development. Through her work, she has introduced hundreds of young minds to computer science.

Sarah Jean Feeser, Research Excellence Award, Senior, Physics and Astronomy: A talented astronomy researcher, Jean's passion and motivation for discovering the secrets of the cosmos is matched by her commitment to teaching and outreach. 

As a UTeach scholar, Jean will be teaching physics in Austin-area high schools for the next few years, and her long-term goal is to find a career incorporating both astronomy research and education. She has already volunteered for multiple semesters as an assistant teacher in local middle and high schools. She has also volunteered for many STEM-oriented outreach programs, including the Austin Maker Faire and Museum Day.

Marco Flores, Research Excellence Award, Senior, Neuroscience and Sociology: Marco is an exceptionally focused researcher, interested in why HIV-prevention drugs are so inaccessible to the people who need them most. His thesis work demonstrates careful analysis across decades of data and across multiple disciplines, from health policy to economics to social stigma and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Marco's research has broad potential implications for understanding how health and economic policy in the United States may support or impede access to life-saving therapeutic drugs among vulnerable populations.

Edén Garza, Community Engagement Award, Senior, Computer Science: Eden is a volunteer with Coding in the Classroom, a departmental outreach organization where he has helped introduce computer science to students in fifth grade in a local Title I elementary school. In that time, Edén has also been a consistent volunteer and organizer for ExploreUT, Girl Day, and Hour of Code efforts. In addition, he has been tutoring students in the computer science department for two years. In all of these actions, Edén shows leadership, service and a willingness to work towards the success of others. As an undergraduate TA, he has advocated for students and held more study sessions than any TA before. Eden has served as an officer in the Hispanic Association of Computer Scientists and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

Marissa Jenkins, Community Engagement Award, Senior, Computer Science: Marissa is a charismatic leader with a strong academic background whose impressive accomplishments include helping to found and lead Black Wings, a Rewriting the Code (RTC)-associated affinity space for Black women. RTC is a global organization that supports college women hoping to pursue tech. Marissa was one of five women selected to create the space, and as a leader, she plans initiatives with company partners and co-leads to uplift, connect and develop Black college women in tech. As she has worked to bring visibility to the organization, she has increased membership by 60% over a five-month period. As a leader for this organization, Marissa also meets with company partners to discuss the needs of Black women as a community and how they can address those needs. Marissa also serves as a mentor in the Computer Science Department, where she brings a warm and welcoming presence to programs. She has served as the president of the Association of Black Computer Scientists (ABCS) for two years of her undergraduate career and volunteered regularly with UTCS's Hour of Code initiative, Explore UT, and Girl Day. While serving as a TA in computer science courses, Marissa has worked diligently to help ensure that all CS freshmen succeed during their first year at UT.

Sharif Long, Staff and Faculty Choice Award, Junior, Biology: Standing out as a student with enthusiasm and leadership, Sharif was accepted to the Dell Medical School's Health Leadership Apprenticeship Program, giving him the opportunity to work with Dell Med faculty on efforts to bring about health transformation in the community. His project is with the Volunteer Health Clinic in Austin, which primarily serves uninsured patients and patients from vulnerable communities, where he and his team create health education videos about fitness, diabetes and diet. Sharif plans to focus his research on health care equity and how disparities negatively impact minority communities. He has also taken on leadership roles in the Tejas Club at UT, where he served as philanthropy co-chair, and as a board member at the Walker Fellowship at UT. He also volunteers with the YMCA Youth and Government program, which provides middle and high school students opportunities to learn about civic engagement and social impact.

Gabbie McDaniel, Staff and Faculty Choice Award, Leadership and Service Award and Dean's Choice Award, Senior, Biology: Gabbie has served as a student assistant for the CNS Student Life Office and as a Women in Natural Sciences (WINS) mentor and TA. She is also the student coordinator for the CNS Black and Latinx Advocacy Council (BLAC) which advises Dean Vanden Bout. In addition, she moderated the student panel for the State of Black UT and was the master of ceremonies for the 2021 Aspire Banquet. Gabbie has been a role model for multiple students as a mentor for WINS and the student organizations she helps to lead in addition to BLAC. This past year especially Gabbie has served on numerous committees and advised both CNS and University leadership on issues surrounding equity, inclusion and the State of Black UT.

Jayden Medrano, Inspire Award, Senior, Biochemistry: Jayden has provided support and mentorship to first-year students. He has pushed for inclusive training materials and to provide a better experience for the student community. His work became more challenging, but even more vital during online-only learning, through which he found new ways to engage his community and encourage others to practice better safety measures. He has served as a lead mentor in the TIP Scholars Program, managing a group of nine student leaders and six first-year students.

Aubrey Medrano, Research Excellence Award, Senior, Physics and Astronomy: After serving as a peer mentor for several years, Aubrey became an undergraduate researcher in the White Dwarf Stream of the Freshman Research Initiative. Aubrey's chosen project is to generate realistic mock "observed" images of galaxies from a theoretical hydrodynamical simulation. The long-term goal is to include these galaxies in a set of simulated James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) imaging data being prepared for the Early Release Science program. This will provide invaluable data for how much can be learned from JWST data when it becomes available. Because of her dedication and rapid progress, Aubrey has been involved in key projects to prepare for the JWST data, proposing one project herself, exhibiting a level of independence and scientific insight that is rare for an undergraduate student. She presented a detailed poster about her project at the recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society to experts in the field. 

Brianna Middleton, Leadership and Service Award, Junior, Biochemistry: Brianna is an engaged member of the DEI Concentration Task Force, helping to shape the future of the concentration for the College of Natural Sciences and the University. She is enthusiastic and brings great ideas and perspective to conversations. Brianna has given of her time when many students are less involved, going out of her way to join meetings. She is providing critical student leadership in this space, and the DEI Concentration will be improved by her input, benefiting current and future students in the concentration.

Mikayla Moore, Staff and Faculty Choice Award and Leadership and Service Award, Senior, Computer Science: Mikayla is an officer of the Association of Black Computer Scientists (ABCS), the leading organization representing Black students within the Department of Computer Science. She has taken the initiative to be the primary facilitator of communication between faculty and ABCS members, handling and discussing issues around diversity and inclusion that can be particularly difficult for students in marginalized groups to address in STEM departments that lack proportional representation of demographic groups in the general population. The work Mikayla puts into building trust and community between the department's faculty and some of its most historically marginalized students is likely to have strong impacts that will extend into the future, far beyond her time as a UT CNS student, her nominators observed.

Rebeca Moreno Villarreal, Research Excellence Award, Junior, Biology: Since 2018, Rebeca has been a student researcher and undergraduate peer mentor in a plant molecular genetics lab as part of the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). The FRI is an innovative, award-winning program that introduces undergraduate freshman to authentic research affiliated with a participating faculty member's laboratory here at UT Austin. She has demonstrated a passion for a career as a scientist, intense intellectual curiosity, talent and determination. She has served as an undergrad peer mentor and is also an undergrad researcher in a primate ecology and evolution lab and a project intern for the Rainforest Partnership.

Lois Owolabi, Leadership and Service Award and Dean's Choice Award and Research Excellence Award, Senior, Biochemistry: Lois has been heavily involved in the Polymathic Scholars Student Leadership Panel, serving as its president this year. Despite the challenges of virtual-only events, Lois went above and beyond to help first-year students during their Cornerstones seminar. She created an inclusive and welcoming classroom environment, which has carried over into the greater Polymath community. She allowed and encouraged many different voices and perspectives to be heard and the students responded positively.

Her commitment to diversity and inclusion runs through all that Lois does. She has spent countless hours as a diversity and inclusion honors ambassador, helping CNS Honors with outreach and recruitment in order to improve diverse representation within the program. Further, Lois is an active participant in conversations and actions surrounding the current climate in CNS Honors. Lois is focused not only improving numbers, but on improving the entire student experience for those who are underrepresented in these programs. 

América Melany Quistiano, Staff and Faculty Choice Award and Inspire Award, Senior, Computer Science: América became the president of the Hispanic Association of Computer Scientists (HACS) right after the pandemic began. She is a consistent inspiration to others, putting her community first and fighting for students' needs and rights. She dedicates her time to helping out incoming students in the Computer Science Department and engaging with students as a resident assistant. Her reach has been far and wide, with the goal of making sure everyone felt like they belonged and had a friend. América has made a space for students to feel themselves and found ways to support them academically, professionally and socially. She has been working on a system to ease communication between students and the department, scholarships and funds for students, and a bootcamp for freshmen and sophomore students to find their bearing at UT and in technology. She is a mentor to younger students within HACS. América helped to create the fundraiser for Texas Computer Science diversity scholarships that raised over $40,000. América's most recent endeavor, Conquering UTCS & Tech Bootcamp, will be available to all freshmen and sophomores with sessions teaching students about tech tools, internships, career paths and more. 

Mariana Rios, Inspire Award and Community Engagement Award, Junior, Nutrition: Mariana has helped hundreds of families with her research efforts in nutritional health, as well as hundreds of peers by offering academic guidance. She has worked tirelessly as a Peer-Led Undergraduate Studying facilitator and coordinator, helping peers develop effective study habits and critical thinking skills. 

Mariana has been on the Health Science Scholars' council since her freshman year as part of the Special Projects Committee, where she has helped connect students with faculty and health professionals in the Austin area. She started the After Office Hours Program, a service that allows students to foster strong student-professor relations outside a classroom setting. Students can go on a hike, grab ice cream or paint with professors.

As a member of the Latinx community, Mariana has committed herself to ensuring diversity and inclusion in the College of Natural Sciences, including as a member of the Black and Latinx Advisory Council. 

Antony Rodriguez, Leadership and Service Award, Junior, Nutrition: In the midst of a historic ice storm in Texas, Anthony and his friends took it upon themselves to provide food and warmth to people experiencing homelessness around Austin. They provided over 300 meals and raised money. He is also involved in the Social Entrepreneurship Learning Lab, an organization devoted to building sustainable and socially responsible enterprises.

Carlos Salazar, Inspire Award, Senior, Biochemistry: Carlos has combined a strong academic performance with research skills and service activities. His research has involved overseeing students who make home visits to Spanish-speaking households to learn about the physical effects of stress in bilingual communities. He has volunteered his time as a youth soccer coach, served as an interpreter at a health care clinic, worked with Hearts to Hospice and provided a platform for connecting the elderly with college students who provide needed services.

Carlos worked as an undergraduate teaching assistant in a course for first-generation students interested in health professions, helping first-year students plot out their career paths. He was recently accepted to Harvard Medical School and plans to pursue a career as a physician. 

David Sarabia, Research Excellence Award, Junior, Chemistry: David worked as a mentor in the Supramolecular Sensors Stream in the Freshman Research Initiative, where he helped first-year students with experiments and assignments. During the pandemic, he stepped up to lead Zoom lab sessions, extra discussion sessions to work one on one with students, organize mentor meetings and guide everyone through advanced data analysis. David is an advanced undergraduate researcher who helped to establish the UT Wine Initiative by analyzing Texas wines based on their tannin composition and their metabolomic profile. His preliminary data was presented to donors and collaborators in the Texas wine community.

David is also a McNair Fellow and plans to attend graduate school to become a researcher. 

Dontae Teuton, Inspire Award, Junior, Neuroscience: Dontae serves as a peer mentor in the Freshman Research Initiative. He is researching music therapy in his free time and is part of a community that plays music for the elderly. In fall 2020, Dontae enrolled in an Inventors Program course for health professions students and worked with community leaders to discuss ways to improve upon wearing of masks with glasses and solve the problem of foggy lenses. His project was well received, and he was encouraged to apply for seed money to continue developing his ideas. As his research, Dontae worked to screen lanthanide compounds and joined a group last summer that offered remote opportunities for research.

Charles Torres, Community Engagement Award, Junior, Mathematics: Charles has served as a lead tutor in the UTeach program, leading a STEM tutorial program for rural youth. He is now an undergraduate teaching assistant where he provides academic support to his peers and support to course instructors. Over the 2020 summer, Charles served as a UTeach student ambassador, visited each Freshmen Orientation and recruited students into the teaching field. He worked tirelessly to monitor efforts, develop reports and innovate. More recently, he organized the administration of a program partnership between UT students and rural community youth to provide STEM tutorials. These rural youth have demonstrated academic growth as well as social and emotional security as a result of the mentorship program Charles oversaw. As a result of his efforts in summer 2020 as a UTeach Ambassador, recruitment into UTeach doubled, as more students had the opportunity to hear about the field of STEM teaching and how rewarding the career option can be.

Anthony (AJ) Varner, Research Excellence Award, Junior, Neuroscience: AJ joined the Freshman Research Initiative Fish Behavior Research Stream in his first year and continued on as a peer mentor for FRI, as well as a Research Experience class for incoming biology students. He has collaborated with other students to design a social recognition experiment that was then used in the following semester of stream research. He took the lead running behavior trials and was impressive in coordinating multiple moving parts in collecting research data. His group won the Thermo Fisher Scientific Award for Excellence in Biological Sciences at the Spring 2020 Undergraduate Research Forum poster session. He continued to pursue this line of research and will conduct a follow-up experiment for his Capstone project next year.

AJ mentored High School Research Academy (HSRA) students in Summer 2019, including initiating creation of a tank insert design that allowed collection of offspring in a highly cannibalistic species – an integral part of an ongoing project to test for changes in female anxiety/exploration responses as a function of reproductive cycle status. He mentored new FRI undergraduates throughout the difficult transition to virtual learning in Spring and Fall 2020 and served as a senior mentor in Spring 2021. 

Ingrid Villarreal, Community Engagement Award, Junior, Biology: When the pandemic began, Ingrid saw the impact of COVID-19 on the community and frontline health care professions. She started Sweat X Serve, an online community platform to host live group fitness classes. As a yoga instructor, Ingrid knew the importance of physical activity and connecting with others. All classes are taught by certified fitness instructors from across the country and are donation-based. This past fall, Sweat X Serve was officially registered as a Texas nonprofit organization. Along with her co-founders, Ingrid was recognized by Featured Female Founders and by UT Kendra Scott Women's Entrepreneurship Leadership Institute (KS WEL Institute) for social entrepreneurship tied to the founding of Sweat X Serve. All of Sweat X Serve's proceeds benefit Dell Medical School's COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

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Saturday, 03 December 2022

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