GradImpact Submissions

    The CGS GradImpact project tells the larger story of graduate education through featured examples from our member institutions. Our goal is to demonstrate the importance of graduate education not only to degree holders, but also to the communities where we live and work. Do you have a great story to share about the impact of master’s or doctoral education? Visit the CGS website for more information.

    Educating the Public on a Decline in Marine Life through Art Installations
    JD Whitman
    MFA in Art, University of Iowa

    Invertebrates comprise roughly 97 percent of life on Earth and “ensure habitat quality, serve as the foundation for most food chains, and sustain both marine and terrestrial ecosystems.” Their rapid decline poses significant risk to this planet’s future. Jacquelyn Dale (JD) Whitman, an MFA candidate in art at the University of Iowa, combines art with marine ecology to educate the public on a decline in marine biodiversity due to human threats like habitat destruction, overfishing, invasive species, pollution, and climate change.

    Whitman’s thesis project presents Ireland’s Blaschka Invertebrate Models—glass replicas of marine invertebrate species from our 19th-century oceans—through an interactive, sculptural installation made from recycled plastic and animated video projections. She intends for her installations to combat ecophobia – “a negative response or automatic desensitization to visual images of environmental disasters” – an issue she’s studied since her time as a student in Ireland. 

    “This installation will positively educate viewers on the global decline in marine biodiversity due to the threat of plastic pollution,” says Whitman, a native of Philadelphia, Pa. “Almost every single food chain and ecosystem depends on invertebrates. If we eliminate the invertebrates, it is doubtful that we as a species will survive. If we remove just one of the human threats—if we work to resolve the plastic pollution crisis—that could help to reverse this potentially catastrophic, global decline.” To learn more about JD’s work, visit the University of Iowa website.

    Photo Credit: JD Whitman is pictured at the National Museum Ireland-Natural History.

    Using Satellite Data Images of the Arctic to Teach the Public about Climate Change
    Zachary Labe,
    Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine
    Harrisburg, PA

    Zachary Labe, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, has become a bit of a Twitter celebrity because of his satellite data images on Arctic sea ice. Labe sees the ability to communicate his research to a broad, public audience as imperative to the success of his work. With almost 14,000 followers, Labe has demonstrated that there is a public eager to learn.

    Labe’s primary research happens in Dr. Gudrun Magnusdottir’s Modeling Lab on UCI’s campus. Their focus is to better understand the crucial relationships between the circulation patters in the atmosphere and oceans and the external processes that affect them. These outside forces include things like concentration of greenhouse gases, variability from volcanic eruptions, or anomalies in the surface temperatures of the water. This research is particularly important given the accelerated rate of temperature increase in the Arctic – it’s twice what it is in the rest of the world.

    “The way I see it, why should I do this science if I can’t better explain and share it with the public?” says Labe, who wrote his own algorithms for the data. “Climate change is already affecting everyone, even if they don’t realize it, and this is a perfect opportunity to communicate the science.” To learn more about Zack’s work, visit the University of California, Irvine website.

    Photo Credit: Steve Zylius / UCI

    Studying Animal Behavior to Determine How Personality Is Shaped
    Peter Marting
    Animal Behavior, Arizona State University

    Our personalities – characteristics or qualities that form our character – are, in part, what make us unique individuals. Peter Marting, a doctoral candidate in animal behavior in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, has discovered that ant colonies have unique personalities, too.

    Azteca ant colonies make their homes in Cecropia trees, which provide nutrients to the ants. In exchange, the ants act as security guards – protecting trees from choking vines and leaf-eating insects – but some colonies are better protectors than others. Marting’s research reveals that ant colonies actively displaying more aggressive behaviors protect their trees more from leaf damage than more docile colonies. Why is this important? Marting wants to better understand how the personality of an ant colony can affect its symbiotic relationships and whether there are identifiable factors that determine personality.

    Studying animal personalities is a relatively new field and observing animals in the wild can be extremely difficult given the challenges in observing consistent behavior in the same animal. However, the study system Marting uses allows him to revisit the same trees with the same colonies on a regular basis over the course of months and years. Marting takes his research one step further through a marriage with artistic expression. He has created interactive sculptures representing the ants and plants that blink with data collected from real ant colonies. To learn more about Peter’s work, visit the Arizona State University website.

    Photo Credit: Peter Marting

    Collecting Critical Data to Predict the Response of Earth’s Polar Ice to Climate Change
    Nathan Kurtz
    Atmospheric Physics, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
    Fort Madison, IA

    Last week, Nathan Kurtz left on a trip for Greenland, not exactly a frequent location for travelers and definitely not for a few months a year. But for Kurtz, Greenland and Antarctica are becoming recurrent destinations. After receiving his doctorate in atmospheric physics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Kurtz spent several years working as a research associate for the Goddard Earth Sciences and Technology Center at UMBC. His research interests have centered on sea ice and its role in the global climate system. Needless to say, becoming the project scientist for NASA’s Operation IceBridge was a dream come true.

    “The Earth's polar ice covers, including the massive ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica as well as the surrounding ice-covered seas, have recently been observed to be undergoing a state of complex change,” said Kurtz. “Understanding these changes and their influence on climate using the latest in satellite and airborne remote sensing technology forms the core of my research.”

    The IceBridge project and Kurtz’s work as project scientist have received quite a bit of attention recently. Time published an article in January 2018 that describes some of the data collected during a mission, and the attention from the public is welcome. This is a critical project to better understand the connections between the polar regions and the global climate system. To learn more about Nathan’s work, visit the University of Maryland, Baltimore County website.


    Photo Credit: Nathan Kurtz

    Music as a Path out of Poverty
    Dafne Guevara
    Musical Arts, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
    El Chorrillo, Panama

    When she was six years old, Dafne Guevara, a doctoral candidate in musical arts at the University of Nevada, Las, Vegas, discovered her musical ability. Her mother had enrolled her in a music program to keep her off the streets of El Chorrillo, Panama, a country with the second worst income distribution in Latin America and where roughly 25% of the population lives in poverty. Guevara overcame many obstacles, including discouraging words from an elementary school teacher.

    Guevara left Panama for North Carolina on a Fulbright scholarship in 2010 to study flute performance and earned her master’s degree. While pursuing her doctorate at UNLV, she decided to do something to benefit her home country and organized the first-ever flute festival at the University of Panama. Guevara began by founding a non-profit organization, Asociación Panameña de Flautistas (APAFLUT), to assist with fundraising. She applied for scholarships and grants, reached out to mentors, and held recitals to raise money to host the festival.

    67 students aged 12-21 from six countries and 17 artists and instructors gathered during the summer of 2017 to see first-hand the power of music. Sponsors helped to pay the tuition and fees for many of the students. “I wanted the whole music community to see that they can do it,” Guevara said. “If you set your mind to something, you can do it.” To learn more about Dafne’s work visit the University of Nevada, Las Vegas website.

    Photo Credit: UNLV Creative Services

    Research to Better Understand How Antidepressants Affect Fetal Development
    Juan Velasquez
    Neuroscience, University of Southern California
    Los Angeles

    Juan Velasquez, a recent doctoral recipient in neuroscience at the University of Southern California, was awarded a prestigious Chateaubriand Fellowship to study how antidepressants affect fetal development during pregnancy. Somewhere between 12-18% of women experience depression at some point during the course of their pregnancy. Scientists, including Dr. Velasquez, are researching selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants increasingly prescribed to treat depression in pregnant women, and their effects during fetal development.

    Understand the importance of Dr. Velasquez’s work requires a basic understanding of how SSRIs work. Depression is linked to the way chemicals, specifically serotonin, in your brain operate. Researchers believe that an imbalance of serotonin contributes to things like depression, anxiety, and stress. By taking SSRIs, patients alter their brain chemistry to balance levels of serotonin. One of the questions Dr. Velasquez wants to answer is whether changes in a pregnant woman’s brain chemistry can affect the fetus. How would it affect a fetus? The same way a fetus gets its nourishment among other things: through the placenta.

    Early results from Dr. Velasquez’s research indicate that SSRIs do cross the placenta and affect the fetal brain, and other studies have shown that taking antidepressants during pregnancy can increase the risk of things like autism and ADHD. However, not treating depression during pregnancy is not an answer Dr. Velasquez will accept. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and continues to study this process to ensure the health of both the fetus and the mother. To learn more about Juan’s work visit the USC Graduate School YouTube Channel.

    A Veteran Brings the Parks to the People through Research and Outreach
    Jessica Phillips
    Recreation, Tourism, and Sports Management, North Carolina State University
    Raleigh, NC

    After spending five years in the Marine Corps, including two deployments in Iraq and working as a mechanic on AV8B II jets, Jessica Phillips was eligible for the G.I. Bill to pay for higher education. She was working as a ranger at Kerr Lake State Recreation Area in North Carolina and at least an hour drive from a major university. Phillips discovered an online program at North Carolina State University and went on to earn her Professional Master’s Degree in parks, recreation, tourism, and sports management.

    Phillips’s love of the outdoors started during childhood. After leaving the Marines, she knew she needed to find a job that would provide variety and wouldn’t require sitting at a desk all day. “In the Marine Corps, I was out on a flight deck and an open squadron, and I learned that I was somebody who didn’t want to work in an office,” she said. “I would have slowly died.” Phillips believed her skill sets would be a good match for a park ranger, and she has taken her work as a ranger to the next level. While at Kerr Lake she developed a regular “Ask a Ranger” column for the local newspaper and programming for the local radio station.

    In 2014, Phillips moved to Umstead State Park, where she has developed an “Ask a Ranger” blog on the website, started podcasts by recording interviews with her colleagues, and created photo exhibits to celebrate the state parks’ centennial. Ultimately, Phillips wants everyone to appreciate all the parks have to offer. “I thought that by bringing the parks to (the people), we might then bring them to the parks.” To learn more about Jessica’s work visit the North Carolina State University website.

    Photo Credit: Becky Kirkland, NC State University

    Finding Innovative Ways to Empower Women through Resource Development
    Zubaida Bai
    MBA, Colorado State University
    Chennai, India

    As a first-generation student from Chennai, India, Zubaida Bai was determined to make a difference. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Dalarna University in Sweden, Bai spent four years working back home in India to provide communities with the necessary resources. Bai was specifically interested in finding ways to help the women in her community. She entered the Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise MBA program at Colorado State University in search of innovative ways to empower women through business.

    One issue in particular struck a chord with Bai: the number of women who die in childbirth. Having had her own complications with infection after delivering a baby, Bai understood the urgency of the problem. One of the main causes of complications is “a lack of access to basic clean tools at the time of childbirth,” said Bai. She and her husband founded the company ayzh (pronounced eyes) to create innovative products, including a birth kit (called JANMA) to provide the necessary tools for clean, safe childbirth in the poorest communities.

    Since creating JANMA, Ms. Bai has developed additional resources to assist women: a neonatal kit, a postpartum kit, and a program to provide women with the menstrual supplies they need.  Bai has received global recognition for her work. In 2009, she was named a TED Fellow and delivered a TED talk in December 2016 that has been viewed nearly 900,000 times. In 2016, Bai was named an SDG Pioneer during the United Nation’s Global Compact Summit. To learn more about Zubaida’s work visit the Colorado State University website.

    Photo Credit: Ryan Lash/TED

    Science Isn’t Just Something that Happens in Labs
    Arianna Soldati
    Geological Sciences, University of Missouri
    Milano, Italy

    As a recent doctoral recipient in geological sciences from the University of Missouri, Arianna Soldati has a passion for science, volcanology to be specific. She says, “My fascination with volcanoes dates back to early childhood…and I have been pursuing my passion across four continents.” As one of roughly 1,500 volcanologists in the world, she gets a lot of questions about her work when meeting new people. Soldati realized that learning how to talk about it with a wide audience was really important, which fueled her interest in science communication and outreach.

    During the Fall of 2017, Soldati founded the program Science on Wheels (SoW), a graduate student-run science outreach program targeting adults in Missouri’s rural communities. Their mission is, “to provide people living in rural areas with the opportunity to interact with scientists right in their towns, promoting a positive perception of science.” SoW focuses on adults, because once out of school, many never engage with science again. Soldati hopes that the more people understand science and scientists, the more they will trust them. “Science isn’t just something that happens in labs,” Soldati said. “It’s something that’s used in everyday life.”

    Dr. Soldati graduated this Spring semester and is looking forward to beginning a postdoc in Germany at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. She will be researching the effects of phenocrysts (a specific kind of crystal) on lava flow with funding from the Humboldt Foundation. To learn more about Arianna’s work visit the University of Missouri website, or her blog, Volcanic Arianna.

    Understanding How Viruses Affect Their Hosts
    Lok Raj Joshi and Maureen Fernandes
    Veterinary Microbiology, South Dakota State University
    Nepal & Brazil

    Lok Raj Joshi and Maureen Fernandes are both studying swine viruses while pursuing their doctorates in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at South Dakota State University. Specializing in veterinary microbiology, Joshi and Fernandes are researching two different viruses that affect pigs. As the world’s third-largest producer and the largest exporter of pork products, these swine viruses threaten the U.S. pork industry and the economy more broadly.

    Joshi’s research focuses on Senecavirus A (SVA), which causes lesions on a pig’s snout and feet and can lead to lameness. The recent increase in reported cases of SVA has raised its profile and interest in additional research to better understand the virus. Joshi studies the causes of SVA and aims to better identify its characteristics. Fernandes researches a virus that affects a pig’s reproductive and respiratory systems (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus), “a common swine virus that causes millions of dollars in losses every year to the swine industry.” Fernandes is working to identify potential immunizations that will protect the pigs from the virus.

    Mr. Joshi and Ms. Fernandes were honored for their work at the Conference of Research Workers in Animal Disease last year in Chicago. To learn more about Lok and Maureen’s work visit the South Dakota State University website.

    Photo Credit: SD State News Center

    Inspiring Generations of Students to Solve Real World Problems
    Alyson Nelson
    Educational Technology, Boise State University
    Belton, South Carolina

    Alyson Nelson has been teaching science to high school students for more than a decade and believes setting lofty expectations rather than underestimating them will help her students achieve even loftier goals. After completing her bachelor’s degree from Clemson University, Nelson began working at Mauldin High School in South Carolina and simultaneously pursued her master’s degree in educational technology and a graduate certificate in school technology coordination at Boise State University. Now she teaches biomedical engineering at the Nikola Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, WA.

    Hired in 2013 to develop a signature STEM Lab at the recently opened school, Nelson says people are surprised to hear high school students are taking biomedical engineering courses. Her students are 17-18 years old and developing prosthetics, trying to better understand pandemic infections, and looking for ways to care for and cure patients. “My students are really open to whatever they want to pursue. When the project is relevant to them, they are so much more confident in what they are doing, and they’re so much more passionate about really finding a solution,” said Nelson.

    Ms. Nelson was recently named a Paul Allen Distinguished Educator, which “recognizes and rewards teachers who ‘break the mold’ of traditional schooling to provide students with opportunities to become thinkers, makers, and creators through computer science, engineering, and entrepreneurship.” To learn more about Alyson’s work visit the Boise State University website and her webpage on the Allen Distinguished Educators website.

    Establishing an Equal Playing Field for All People to Succeed
    Garry Johnson
    Entrepreneurship & Design, University of Delaware
    New Castle, Delaware

    Garry Johnson, a recent master’s recipient in entrepreneurship & design from the University of Delaware, has a true entrepreneurial spirit, a passion for community leadership, and the drive to make the world a better place. Johnson’s innovative and creative skills have led to several startups focused on increasing diversity in entrepreneurship and the tech industry.

    Johnson’s latest brainchild, TalentPool, draws on earlier ideas from his startup, ColorCoded, which focused primarily on helping young men and women of color be competitive for jobs in the tech industry. Now Johnson also wants to see more diversity in entrepreneurs, and he intends to achieve that through his educational platform, TalentPool. “Before the summer is over, this platform will be ready,” Johnson said. “I believe people want it and need it. The entrepreneurial ecosystem needs it, too, an equal playing field for all people to succeed.”

    Mr. Johnson recently received first place for TalentPool at the Startup Tech Conference and Pitch Competition at Prairie View A&M University. Johnson’s prize is an interview for the DivInc Accelerator Program. In addition, Johnson started the “I Have a Dream Pitch Competition” at the University of Delaware to empower Wilmington’s young men of color by inspiring confidence and improving skills through entrepreneurship. To learn more about Garry’s work visit the University of Delaware website.

    Photo Credit: University of Delaware

    Promoting Technology Innovation in Africa by Empowering Young Girls to Pursue STEM Education
    Unoma Okorafor
    Electrical and Computer Engineering, Texas A&M University

    In 2008, Unoma Okorafor completed her doctorate in electrical and computer engineering from Texas A&M University. As a Sloan Scholar at Texas A&M, Dr. Okorafor founded Working to Advance STEM Education for African Women (WAAW) Foundation, an international non-profit organization that seeks to “increase the pipeline of African women entering into Science and Technology fields and ensure they are engaged in Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship to benefit Africa.” WAAW sponsors STEM camps for young girls in 10 African countries and provides coding workshops, outreach, training programs, and scholarships. Her vision is to provide African girls with choices by exposing them early on to the various career opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) and Computer Science (CS) fields.

    In addition to educating the girls and young women, Okorafo found it necessary to spend time educating their communities on why foundations like WAAW are needed. The overall sentiment seemed to be that no one was stopping girls from pursuing a STEM-focused education. Okorafor begs to differ. Domestic violence, poverty, sexual violence, teenage pregnancy, unequal divisions of household labor, and the inability to own property in some African countries are all barriers for women, and Okorafor is determined to change this. “I think our communities need to empower more girls to speak up, and to own their space, even if it’s in the STEM fields where it’s male dominated, because we do have something to contribute.” 

    In addition to a Sloan Foundation Fellowship, Dr. Okorafo received the AAUW Engineering Dissertation Fellowship and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Fellowship for promoting STEM education. She has also worked at Texas Instruments, Intel, HP, and IBM researchlabs. To learn more about Unoma’s work visit the Texas A&M University website.

    Advocating for Solutions that Promote Public Safety and Rehabilitation
    Ryan Gentzler
    Master of Public Administration, University of Oklahoma-Tulsa

    Ryan Gentzler, a recent Master of Public Administration recipient from the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, saw many challenges facing his fellow Oklahomans from low and middle-income families. Having worked for Tulsa non-profits, he realized that public policy research and advocacy were ways for him to help his community, and he knew the MPA program at OU-Tulsa would help him develop those skills.

    “Low-paying work, difficult-to-access healthcare, underfunded schools, and a punitive criminal justice system can make the struggle out of poverty insurmountable, landing the state at the bottom of the pack in many measures of well-being,” said Gentzler. “[I’m] hoping to address these challenges at the structural level.” Gentzler now works for the Oklahoma Policy Institute as a policy analyst. His current focus is to raise awareness surrounding Oklahoma’s criminal justice system. The state’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in the country, and Gentzler seeks solutions to reduce these numbers and promote public safety and rehabilitation.

    In the first survey of its kind, Gentzler researched thousands of public records to ascertain how much money in fines and legal fees Oklahomans owed to the court system, and he wanted to know where they lived. Gentzler discovered that as Oklahoma’s state budget got tighter, the court fees increased to meet the shortfalls. In some cases, the fees more than doubled. In addition, Gentzler found that “people in low-income neighborhoods in Tulsa County owed up to ten times as much in court debt as those in wealthier neighborhoods, creating a huge barrier to economic mobility and trapping people in a cycle of incarceration and poverty.” To learn more about Ryan’s work visit the OU-Tulsa websiteand the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

    Photo Credit: Becca Hyvonen, OU-Tulsa

    Developing Novel Vaccines and Treatments against HIV and other Viruses
    Yi Wen
    Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology, Cornell University

    Yi Wen, a doctoral student in biochemistry, molecular and cell biology at Cornell University, received the 2018 Harry and Samuel Mann Outstanding Graduate Student Award for her research that aims to help develop novel vaccines and treatments against HIV and other viruses. A virus can only replicate inside living cells and can infect all life forms. There are millions of different viruses, and viral cells reproduce by using the host cells to create copies. This process can make some viruses especially difficult to kill.

    Wen studies virology, exploring membrane biophysics and lipid chemistry to try and find a way to keep the host cells from releasing the viral copies back into the host’s body. Wen’s research focuses on the lipid “PIP2.” Lipids make up the cell membrane, which is akin to its skin. PIP2 is a pretty minor part of cell membranes, but according to Wen, “it plays a major role in cell function and also in HIV infection.” Wen discovered that PIP2 is extremely sensitive to some metal ions.

    “The metal ions shield PIP2, and only specific proteins are likely to be able to compete against those metal ions to have access to PIP2,” Wen said. “HIV appears to require those PIP2 clusters as assembly and release sites of new viruses. I think this could be HIV’s Achilles’ heel.” To learn more about Yi’s work visit the Cornell University website.

    Photo Credit: Matt Hayes/CALS, Cornell University

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