Joshua Raji

Biology was Joshua Raji’s best subject when he was growing up. It was his favorite subject, and he was good at it. He suspects that he may have inherited his passion for biology from his mother. “My mum is a science teacher,” he says. “I guess it rubbed off on me.”

Joshua’s passion for biology endured. In Nigeria, he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the Federal University of Technology, Akure and a master’s degree in cell biology and genetics from the University of Lagos. He came to the United States to study the mosquito species responsible for yellow fever, a research interest led him to FIU and to Dr. Matthew DeGennaro’s Laboratory of Tropical Genetics. 

“I wanted to be mentored by a scientist who has made significant contributions to the field of mosquito research,” Joshua says. “I felt doing my research with Dr. Matthew DeGennaro would be perfect for me because my prior research experience with mosquitoes lacks a molecular and genetics approach.”

Joshua, a fourth-year doctoral student, is working to identify the genes that enable the Zika and dengue fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, to be attracted to humans. He and Dr. DeGennaro have discovered a gene that enables mosquitoes to detect human sweat. Their paper on the topic is slated to be published in “Current Biology”. 

“My research promises to provide insight into the genetic basis of mosquito attraction to humans,” Joshua says. “The results could inform our knowledge to develop appropriate vector control measures that would combat the spread of mosquito-borne diseases.”

Joshua was recently awarded the T. Wainwright Miller, Jr. Scholarship and is the first FIU student to receive the award since it was established in 2008. According to the website for the Florida Mosquito Control Association, “The purpose of the award is to encourage and assist students having a major in Biological, Ecological and/or Entomological studies who are seeking degrees relevant to arthropod control, with particular emphasis on Public Health fields.”

Joshua’s love of biology includes a talent and passion for teaching the subject to others. He is a teaching assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences and the 2018 recipient of the FIU Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant award. He has also participated in and earned prizes at student oral competitions on campus, including the Biosymposium, Biomedical and Comparative Immunology Symposium and Graduate Student Appreciation Week.

After completing his doctoral degree, Joshua plans to continue to hone his research skills in a postdoctoral position.

Leonardo Acuna

Becoming a biochemist might seem like an unexpected next step for a helicopter mechanic, but for Leonardo Acuna, the first recipient of the UGS Veterans Fellowship, it makes perfect sense. “I decided to be a mechanic for biological systems, and for me, that means becoming a biochemist,” he says.

Born in Costa Rica, Leonardo moved to Miami before the age of 5. He began his undergraduate career at FSU but was unable to decide on a major. He could not justify paying FSU’s tuition while aimlessly taking classes, so he returned to Miami and finished his associate’s degree at Miami-Dade College. Shortly after, he joined the Marine Corps and hoped that time away from academia would give him time to narrow his interests. He spent the next 5 years fixing helicopters, rose through the ranks while gaining qualifications, and was deployed twice, leading his department for his second deployment. 

Leonardo enjoyed being a helicopter mechanic, and understanding how things operate has always fascinated him. “My time as a mechanic showed me I really enjoyed critically thinking to solve problems and using my hands,” Leonardo says. “So when my contract ran out, I enrolled at FIU as a biology undergraduate because biological science encompasses the same qualities I enjoyed about being a mechanic.” He graduated with a B.S. in Biological Sciences and a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies in December 2017 and decided to  pursue a PhD in Biochemistry at FIU. 

“I’ve had the honor to work with some amazing people at FIU, especially in Dr. (Manuel) Barbieri’s molecular cell biology lab, where I did undergraduate research and continue to work today,” Leonardo says. Leonardo also attended some open houses of several graduate programs at FIU and found the faculty to be very diverse, supportive and welcoming. He says he knew that he could learn a lot from them. 

Leonardo would eventually like to focus his research on the process of aging. “Although it may sound a bit foolish, I’d like to find a way to prevent it,” he says. One of the causes or contributors to aging are reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are also involved in cancer and many other diseases. Leonardo hopes that in his search for “immortality”, he can find ways to help others by furthering our understanding.

“I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. (Lidia) Kos and Dr. (Andrés) Gil for advocating for the creation of the Veterans Fellowship,” says Leonardo. He hopes to raise awareness of the new fellowship so that others may take advantage of the opportunity. Additionally, he would like to thank Dr. Barbieri and Dr. (Maria Luisa) Veisaga for supporting him in the lab and his graduate work. 

Juan Canoura

Juan Canoura has always been interested in science, but it was his high school chemistry teacher who helped him understand how deeply rooted chemistry is in our lives. 

“I had a very enthusiastic chemistry teacher who would show us how computer technology was linked to the chemistry of silicon, or how biological processes necessary for life are a consequence of the varying structures and connectivity of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon,” Juan says. 

He became convinced that chemistry is the core science, and this belief motivated him to pursue a degree in chemistry as an undergraduate student. He received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from FIU and is now a now a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. 

Juan’s resolute belief in the power of chemistry remains. “Even now when faced with a challenge in my research endeavors, I know if I can tackle it from a chemical standpoint, everything at the macroscopic level will fall into place,” he says. 

Those research endeavors were recently featured in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. His work focuses on improving the detection of small molecules by using an exonuclease mixture and specific DNA sequences to make the molecules more readily detected.  

“We have taken this complex mixture of compounds with varying structure and properties and simplified them into target-specific DNA molecules which can be more readily detected using traditional DNA detection assays,” says Juan, a McNair Fellow. Practical application of this process could be used to improve screening in situations where samples may be limited, such as medical diagnostics, drug screening, and environmental safety. 

Juan’s decision to join the chemistry doctoral program at FIU grew from his desire to continue working with his mentor, Dr. Yi Xiao, who provided him with a wealth of opportunities as an undergraduate student. His interests closely aligned with her research direction, so he was able to further his career development by becoming involved in various projects, proposals, and papers. Her guidance during his undergraduate research helped him improve his persistence and critical thinking skills. He also honed his experimental skills in her lab, and in instances when the technology he needed wasn’t available onsite, he was able to receive training from collaborators.

“Dr. Xiao always provided me with support to attend scientific conferences as an undergraduate so that I may learn about the cutting-edge research within my field and disseminate my research findings,” Juan says. “By the time I had graduated with my undergraduate degree, I was impressed by the sheer amount of growth I had experienced in Dr. Xiao’s lab. Dr. Xiao has also had my best interest at heart, and I knew that by joining her lab, I would continue to grow and better myself as a person and researcher.”

After completing his doctoral degree, Juan plans to become a professor. He wants to continue his research as an independent investigator and tackle critical issues in medical diagnostics, environmental safety, and law enforcement. He also hopes to become a mentor to future scientists and have the same impact on their lives that Dr. Xiao has had on his.

In addition to his professional goals, Juan is an avid cycler and would like to participate in the Tour de France one day as a nonprofessional.

Chintan Bhatt

Chintan Bhatt, a doctoral student at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, was interviewed live on NPR Atlanta on July 19 for his research paper titled “Medicaid Expansion and Infant Mortality in the United States.”

Published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), Bhatt’s research examines the possible effects of Medicaid expansion on infant mortality rates by comparing infant mortality rate trends in states and territories by whether or not they accepted Medicaid expansion — stratifying by race and Hispanic ethnicity.

You can view Chintan’s interview below, which begins at 27:00 and ends at 36:50.

Using data from the National Vital Statistics System, Bhatt discovered that infant mortality rates declined in both Medicaid expansion and non-Medicaid expansion states between 2010 and 2016. However, the decline in Medicaid expansion states proved to be 50 percent greater than in non-Medicaid expansion states.

Declines and differences in states affected by Medicaid expansion were greatest in African American infants. This drove the overall infant mortality rate difference by Medicaid expansion and reduced the infant mortality rate racial disparity in Medicaid expansion states.

“Publishing and disseminating these findings has been extremely important to me, as the future of medical insurance coverage in the nation is presently under review,” says Bhatt, whose research findings suggest that Medicaid expansion may be an important way to address longstanding disparities in U.S. infant mortality by race.

Millions of Americans were affected by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which resulted in changes to health care benefits, coverage and related regulations. Since ACA was implemented in 2014, the uninsured rate decreased, specifically among women aged 18 to 64 years and in the 31 states and Washington, D.C., which accepted Medicaid expansion.

The most frequent users of medical services are pregnant women, mothers and infants, making them potentially the most likely beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion. The Medicaid program has financed coverage for low-income pregnant women for years, covering approximately 45 percent of U.S. births. Medicaid expansion states are required to cover 10 essential health benefits including pregnancy, maternity, pediatric care, chronic disease management, breastfeeding support, contraception, mental health, substance abuse screening and treatment and other behavioral health services.

Bhatt says, because of the dynamic maternal, infant and child health care services required by Medicaid expansion, it may be one of the most important ways in which the ACA may improve maternal and child health outcomes, such as infant mortality.

Bhatt is a medical graduate from India. He obtained his Master of Public Health (MHP) in epidemiology from Stempel College and is a currently a doctoral candidate in the college’s Department of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

This article previously appeared on FIU News and The Latest.

Ben Wilson and Shelby Servais

Doctoral candidate Shelby Servais and doctoral graduate Ben Wilson have been selected as Science Policy Fellows through the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Gulf Research Program. Funded by the Deepwater Horizon settlement, the fellowship places scientists with offices in Gulf Coast communities so that they can experience the intersection of science and policy  first-hand and learn how science can inform policy and decision-making. Fellows spend one year on the staff of federal, state, local, or non-governmental, natural resource, oil and gas, and public health agencies in the Gulf of Mexico region.

Ben and Shelby’s research interests focus on how saltwater intrusion affects plant and soil environments. Shelby’s dissertation investigated how changing environmental conditions affect soil microbes. In the Florida Everglades, she tested how saltwater intrusion alters how soil microbes process carbon nutrients. Ben’s research has focused on how coastal wetlands respond to a changing climate. He has investigated how rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion will affect plant and soil communities. 

Shelby earned her B.S. in environmental science from Mount Saint Mary’s University and will receive her Ph.D. in biology from FIU in Summer 2018. She conducted the research for her dissertation in the Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research Network, a network of research programs located at sites that support study on the influence of long-term and large-scale ecological events.  Enthusiastic about science outreach, Shelby served as a Science Communication Fellow at the Frost Museum of Science in Miami while completing her graduate program. Shelby will be hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Fairhope, Alabama during her Science Policy Fellowship.

Ben holds a Ph.D. in ecology from FIU and an M.S. in marine biology from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and University of Alabama. He has received several awards for his research, including Best Dissertation by the FIU College of Arts, Sciences, and Education, the NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, the FIU Dissertation Year Fellowship, and the Ecological Society of America’s Braun Award for Best Student Poster in 2017. Improving science communication beyond an academic audience has been a priority for Ben, a Science Communication Fellow with the Frost Science Museum. He has focused on communicating the importance of coastal ecosystems, as well as the threat that climate change poses to these ecosystems. One of his career goals is to help protect and restore coastal ecosystems by ensuring that research is communicated effectively enough to reach the correct audience and impact environmental policy. Ben will be hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Lafayette, LA, during his Science Policy Fellowship.

John Gibson

Kendra Adams

Kendra Adams

Kendra Adams is a 5th-year doctoral student in FIU’s Forensic Chemistry program. A native of Burnt Hills, NY, Kendra earned a B.S. in Chemistry with a concentration in Forensic Science from SUNY Albany in 2013. At FIU, Kendra is specializing in Analytical Chemistry.

Kendra, a member of UAlbany’s Division I track and field team during her four years there, became interested in analytical chemistry during her junior year. That year, she took a forensic science class where she had the opportunity to use mass spectrometers to design her own research project.

“After learning about the capabilities of mass spectrometry, I became very interested in pursuing research and joined a research group as an undergraduate,” Kendra said. The work resulting from Kendra’s undergraduate research project was published in a peer-reviewed journal, Drug Testing and Analysis.

Kendra has continued her mass spectrometry work and has published four papers as a graduate student at FIU. Her doctoral work involves using trapped ion mobility spectrometry and mass spectrometry (TIMS-MS) to weigh molecules and experimentally determine their size and shape. This process enables her to measure and identify compounds in complex mixtures.

“Specifically, I have done research looking at various endocrine disruptors, drugs of abuse, and lipids in biological matrices,” Kendra said. TIMS-MS facilitates separating and identifying these types of compounds.

Kendra became interested in FIU because of the forensic track offered in the chemistry doctoral program. “Although I haven’t pursued the traditional forensic route with my research, the analytical work I do can be applied to forensically relevant questions and research,” she said.

After defending her dissertation, Kendra will work as a postdoctoral associate at Duke University, where her research will be focused on Alzheimer’s disease.

graduate student bhusal

Sadhana Bhusal

Sadhana Bhusal, a doctoral student in FIU’s Mechanical and Materials Engineering program, was recently awarded a $2,000 scholarship from The International Thermal Spray Association (ITSA). The scholarship is awarded to students pursuing a postgraduate degree in the field of thermal spray.

Read more

Juliano Freitas

When Juliano Freitas was in high school, his grandmother passed away due to a metastatic tumor in her lung. It was that loss that ultimately led to his interest in metastasis, the topic he is studying for his doctoral degree here at FIU.

“That was the first time I heard the word ‘metastasis’,” Juliano said. Read more