Maanasa Jayachandran

Maanasa Jayachandran has been interested in neuroscience since taking an AP psychology course in the 10th grade. Her casual interest eventually evolved into a fascination with learning and memory.

“As I took more focused courses and gained research experience, I realized that memory is one of the most fundamental mental processes,” she says. “Basically, without memory, we are capable of nothing but simple reflexes and stereotyped behaviors.” 

Maanasa was born in Manhattan, Kansas, and grew up in Miami. She attended the University of Miami, where she earned undergraduate degrees in Neurobiology and Molecular Biochemistry. She earned a master’s degree in Mind and Brain Sciences from the University of Sydney in Australia. Currently, she’s a 5th-year doctoral student at FIU in the Cognitive Neuroscience program in the Department of Psychology. 

Maanasa recently won the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award (F99/K00), a training award that funds the last one to two years of Maanasa’s graduate work at FIU. Once she joins a postdoctoral fellowship lab, the grant funds will transfer to her new institution for three to four years of postdoctoral training.

Maanasa’s work focuses on a specific neural circuit of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) that is known for decision-making. As part of her research, she trains rats to remember sequences of odors by responding to “in-sequence” and “out-of-sequence” odors differently. She uses DREADDs (Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs), electrophysiology, and optogenetics to test the hypothesis that different mPFC projections contribute in different ways to short- and long-term aspects of memory retrieval for sequences of events.

“These experiments will establish foundational knowledge about specific mPFC pathways critical to memory and behavior, which will aid in the development of future therapeutic strategies,” Maanasa says. “Moreover, this will help us better understand what might be happening in the brains of people who are affected by memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

Maanasa credits Dr. Timothy A. Allen, the principle investigator of the Allen Neurocircuitry and Cognition Lab, for bringing her to FIU. He interviewed her before he opened the lab and ended up offering her a spot.

“In short, he believed in me (which is priceless when it comes to a mentor) and cemented my decision to come here,” Maanasa says. “Moreover, I chose to come here because, although the Cognitive Neuroscience program was brand new at the time, the faculty seemed to be invested in, not only the success of the program, but also the progress and well-being of each student. The faculty cares about our input to improve the program, which has allowed us to shape the program for what it is today.”

Maanasa wants to continue working in academia and research after completing her degree. “I want to extend my training as a postdoctoral researcher by investigating the vulnerability of mPFC pathways in validated genetic rodent models related to mental health disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.

She eventually wants to become an independent investigator and open her own lab where she can continue to explore neural circuitry, memory, and related mental health disorders. Beyond that, she hopes to promote diversity and inclusion within the scientific community. 

“Female scientists continue to be underrepresented in the field of neuroscience, and I hope to encourage students from diverse cultural backgrounds to join and excel in this field,” she says.

It’s a goal that winning the NIH award is helping to support and is one of the reasons why winning the award has meant so much to Maanasa. “It not only validates the field I chose to pursue and a sense of belonging in the scientific community, but also, it’s an opportunity to train, educate, and mentor students who are underrepresented and encourage them to pursue their dreams.”

The award has presented Maanasa with the opportunity to learn from respected scientists without the limitations of funding, which is rare. “Through the supportive interactions with my mentor (Dr. Allen) and co-sponsors (Dr. Robert Vertes from Florida Atlantic University and Dr. Farah Lubin from the University of Alabama at Birmingham), my insecurities about becoming a capable neuroscientist are quieted and replaced by confidence,” she says. “I am sincerely honored to be a recipient of this award, and my success speaks not just to my personal achievements but to the mentorship of my current and former PIs.”

Roberto Prado-Rivera

Roberto Prado-Rivera loves learning, and pushing the boundaries of current scientific knowledge is what drives his research. “Some might call it ‘innate curiosity’, but that is too rigid of a description,” Roberto says. “I truly do enjoy learning about new topics, especially those related to physics and mathematics. It’s fun!”

He hopes that pushing boundaries will one day enable him to put his research to use in the solar energy field. NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) is helping make that goal possible. In 2020, Roberto received a fellowship through the program, which is designed to support research in advancements in space exploration and increase minority STEM opportunities.

Roberto, a doctoral student in Mechanical Engineering, was born and raised in Miami, but his family is originally from Nicaragua. He attended Florida State University for his undergraduate degree. He is still deciding what his plans will be after he completes his doctoral program, but he wants to continue working on projects related to his current interests in nanomaterials, as well as branch out into other areas of scientific computing.

Roberto found out about the NASA fellowship from his advisor, Dr. Daniela Radu, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and the director of the NASA Center for Research and Education in 2D Optoelectronics, or CRE2DO, at FIU. CRE2DO aims to create technologies that integrate 2D materials into space-resilient materials, communication devices, and small satellite technology. 2D materials are ultrathin nanomaterials that have a sheet-like structure and can be as thin as a single atom and as thick as a few atoms. Nanomaterials can be used to improve the reliability of mechanical and electrical components in spaceship devices and wearable electronics. CRE2DO’s goal is to create superconductor materials that eliminate the need for battery power. The center is also focused on creating material composites that could be used for spaceship components for future Mars missions and for wearable electronics that would enable high-speed communication between astronauts and the space station.

Dr. Radu provided valuable guidance to Roberto as he prepared his application, and the NSF Bridge to Doctorate Fellowship that helped fund his first two years of graduate study provided several resources in applying for fellowships. However, Roberto says that practice was what helped him the most in applying for the NASA fellowship.

“This was not the first proposal-style application I have written, so I was able to use my past experiences (and mistakes!) to help me write a good application,” he says. “Over time, you will see how your application writing improves after the first couple that you do.”

Roberto says that fellowships provide three main benefits to students: funding their education, providing access to resources (such as labs, computing clusters, and experts in the student’s field), and accolades than can help on future applications. He says the most important thing to take note of when applying is the language of the fellowship. 

“In other words, what is it that the judges at NSF, GEM, Fulbright, etc. want to hear?” Roberto asks. “It may come as a surprise to many, but every application is written differently even if the proposal for all of them is the same. Some are more focused on impacts to society, others ask for scientific merit, and even a few are looking for solutions to very specific problems. You want to write towards these focuses, but you have to figure out which one is needed for that application.”

Having a detailed research plan is also important. “By this I mean you should be able to write down the objectives you are setting out to accomplish and the tasks required to complete those objectives clearly and logically,” Roberto says. “A thorough research plan is much more enticing than one that sounds half-baked and incomplete, and the judges will be able to tell.”

One last tip from Roberto is to be specific and concise on the application. He advises that the person reading it should be able to answer key questions within a few minutes.

“What is it that you are proposing to do?” Roberto asks. “Why is what you are researching important? How will this be accomplished? What preliminary results, if any, are available? And what results are expected? The judges have to shuffle through hundreds of applications; do not make their job harder than it already is.”

Mariacarla Gonzalez

Mariacarla Gonzalez received the Fulbright Student Scholarship in 2019. Her plan was to go to Honduras in 2020 to conduct research on testing a low-cost device that would be used for cervical cancer diagnosis. Fate had other plans.

While in Honduras, Mariacarla visited the hospital she would have worked at and accompanied physicians who were performing cervical cancer screenings in a town outside the city where she was staying, but that was about all she was able to do.

“I left for Honduras February 1st with the intent of coming back December 1st, at the end of the 10-month grant period,” Mariacarla says. “Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, I had to come back March 15th since the program got cancelled for the year.”

Mariacarla attended FIU for her undergraduate work. She remained at FIU for her graduate work in Biomedical Engineering because she was aware of the high amount of research carried out by the University, as well as its ongoing efforts to grow. Additionally, she received funding from the NSF Bridge to Doctorate Fellowship, which allowed her to focus exclusively on classes and research.

A student in the Medical Photonics Lab under the mentorship of Dr. Jessica Ramella-Roman, Gonzalez’s research focuses on cervical health, specifically cervical cancer diagnosis in low-resource settings. She’s also studying the diagnosis of cervical cancer using Mueller Matrix polarimetry. 

“This methodology allows for the quantification of parameters such as light depolarization and retardance, which will vary from healthy to dysplastic tissue,” Mariacarla explains. “Moreover, using machine learning, an algorithm providing a clear distinction between healthy and unhealthy tissue will be developed to complement use of the device by non-experts.”

In Honduras, Mariacarla would have been conducting research on testing a portable polarimeter for cervical cancer diagnosis. A polarimeter is an instrument that measures the rotation of polarized light as it passes through an optically active substance. Her interest in the topic is driven by the desire to reach individuals who cannot benefit from current medical technology, whether it is because of the setting’s infrastructure or high cost. “I would like the broader impact of my work to be the introduction of new, low-cost technology that aids in public health crises,” she says.

Mariacarla pursued Fulbright for her research funding because of the grant’s focus on conducting research in an international setting. “Since my research is focused on the development of devices for low-resource settings, I thought it would be a great opportunity to test the device in the field of intended deployment,” she says.

Mariacarla says there were a few key aspects that contributed to her winning application. First, she says, her research statement was concise, detailed her plan of action in Honduras, and communicated her enthusiasm for her project. Second, her personal statement demonstrated that she already had some experience with her proposed topic and that she held a significant interest in the intercultural and diplomatic aspects of the project. A third key aspect was that she received a letter of support from the physician she would’ve been working with in Honduras, which reinforced her plan of action while abroad.

“Applying for competitive fellowships is of the utmost importance during a PhD,” Mariacarla says. “The grant/fellowship writing experience allows you to view your project—and yourself—from a different light. You learn to view your project as a whole organism, helping clarify ideas of how to proceed with your research.” 

Mariacarla believes that applying for competitive fellowships provides opportunities for valuable practice, as writing grants and reports will be part of the academic journey of all doctoral graduates, whether they choose academia, industry, or other paths. 

“My advice for those who hesitate to apply for opportunities is that there is zero probability that you will receive a grant/fellowship you did not apply for, so why not increase those odds? The worst that can happen when you apply for something is you get told no, but with the experience you gain during the process, the next opportunity you apply for could become a ‘yes’.” 

Claire Helpingstine

Fourth-year doctoral student Claire Helpingstine believes that many students view fellowships as just another opportunity for rejection, but she takes a different approach. She believes that the possibility of rejection can be a pathway to improvement.

“In order to combat this thinking, it is best to view fellowship applications as an opportunity to practice marketing yourself and your project to somebody other than your committee members,” Claire says. “This is a skill that will be necessary for the rest of our careers regardless of whether we choose the academy or industry.”

That attitude has benefitted Claire, as she has been admitted to the Global Health Equity Scholars Program as a 2020-2021 U.S. Predoctoral Student Scholar. The Scholars Program is a one-year global health research program for students who are interested in global health. Sponsored by the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health, the fellowship provides research fellows with an opportunity to research and work in 16 countries at 19 different international sites to experience different diseases and health-related conditions in developing countries. The program includes a stipend, health insurance, modest research supply costs, and travel costs to and from the international field site.

Claire’s fellowship site is the Public Health Research Institute of India (PHRII). Her research project aims to study commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) and its associated health outcomes by using an individual interview approach to analyze the social and cultural structures surrounding CSE in South India.

Originally from Lassen County, California, Claire received a BS degree in Psychology from Barry University. She chose FIU for her doctoral studies because of her desire to work with Dr. Maureen Kenney in the Department of Counseling, Recreation and School Psychology. Claire’s research examines the ways in which factors such as gender, race, and culture, in addition to key social network processes, inform perceptions and experiences of sex trafficking. She hopes to use the skills acquired during her PhD program to work with communities to create change within the U.S. and globally. 

“Sex trafficking has become a ‘hot’ topic in a number of different spheres, and with that has come a number of opposing viewpoints on how to address the issue,” Claire says. “I think what predominantly drives my research interest, however, is the social justice lens through which I view this phenomenon.”

Claire initially learned about the NIH Fogarty Center Pre-Dissertation Fellowship through her primary mentor, Dr. Dionne Stephens. She believes several factors contributed to her winning application, including having experience submitting other fellowship applications and having a strong history working with female sex trafficking victims in the United States. Additionally, Claire gives credit to Dr. Purnima Mahivanan, the GHES Program Director for FIU, who helped her connect to key personnel at PHRII.

Claire believes that applying for competitive fellowships is important because you never know what might come of it. “If it interests you, and you think your research is a good fit, there is really no harm in trying,” she says. 

“Further, each time you apply for a fellowship, you are provided with the ability tighten your project. Often times, a rejected application will include valuable feedback from reviewers which you can then take on board in order to strengthen your next application or project idea in general. Overall, even if you do not get the fellowship, you can gain a number of valuable skills by just applying. This, in and of itself, makes applying to fellowships worth it.”

Robert Tomasetti

Robert Tomasetti

Robert Tomasetti won the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship in 2019. The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support, including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000. The NSF GRFP recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited US institutions. 

Originally from the Milwaukee-Chicago metropolitan region, Robert attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa before enrolling at FIU. He chose FIU for his doctoral studies because of its geographical proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. “I’ve also been fortunate to be paired with an excellent research laboratory at FIU, the CRUSTOMICS Lab of Dr. Heather Bracken-Grissom,” he says.

Robert has worked in non-governmental organizations, non-profit organizations, government agencies, private marine laboratories, and environmental consulting firms. His research focuses on how algal diversity is distributed across oceans, and he wants to provide insight into other marine organisms, particularly those associated with coral reefs. His goal is to create a regional-scale connectivity network for coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean. 

“My pursuit of a PhD is to assist my goals of running a marine fieldwork and data collection program at the intersection of science and public policy,” Robert says.

Attending Dr. Lori Schweikert’s grant-writing workshop was instrumental in putting together a winning fellowship application, Robert says. He also credits his success to having strong letters of support for his proposed research. “Having someone experienced view and critique my writing assisted me in restructuring my thoughts and figures in a more compelling manner,” he says. 

Robert believes that applying to competitive fellowships is important for doctoral students because prestigious fellowships can have far-reaching effects upon one’s future career. Even the process of applying to fellowships yields valuable benefits.

“I have found that formulating my ideas and addressing my research interests in the structured manner of a grant application resulted in clarification of my weaknesses and served to assist the process of writing my PhD proposal,” Robert says. “From a pragmatic perspective, even if one does not succeed in gaining funding or a specific opportunity, the exercise of working under a deadline and receiving peer feedback can help solidify your goals.”