Rosa Cromartie

Rosa Cromartie’s interest in science dates all the way back to elementary school, when she was dissecting animals in science class. “My science and math courses had always been my favorite classes during my primary and secondary education,” Rosa says. “I became interested in chemistry when I got to high school.” 

Rosa went on to study Biochemistry and Molecular Biology as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia. Today, she is a doctoral student in FIU’s Chemistry and Biochemistry department and is studying Chemistry with a concentration in Forensic Science.  Her current research involves developing a method for detecting synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl analogs, morphine, and codeines, in sweat. Rosa’s recent paper on microfluidics has been designated as a “HOT article” by the editors and reviewers of Analytical Methods. (DOI for research article: 10.1039/C8AY02080A; Citation:Anal. Methods, 2019,11, 587-595). The paper was based on her master’s research project, which was developing a paper-based microfluidic analytical device that is able to presumptively test the presence of biological fluids at crime scenes.

“This paper-based microfluidic device permits a fast, simple, and simultaneous screening of 4 different body fluids,” Rosa explains. “It should prove useful in forensic analysis for individuals interested in sample collection for subsequent downstream laboratory analysis using colorimetric reagents.”

Rosa says that this project was her introduction to serology, the study of biological fluids. “The more that I learned about the field of serology, the more I became interested in it and wanted to continue my work in serology while learning other skills in the field of forensics.” 

Several factors contributed to Rosa’s decision to pursue her graduate studies at FIU. First, there was FIU’s presence at most of the conferences that Rosa was attending as an undergraduate. Dr. Sonja Montas-Hunter, then the assistant dean of the University Graduate School, made a big impact on Rosa.

“Her drive and motivation to remember and get me to come to FIU really show me that she cared about me pursuing my graduate studies,” Rosa says. “Even though I had not chosen FIU as my final choice, she was really interested in helping me to go to graduate school, especially for a PhD. The dedication that Dr. Montas-Hunter put into recruiting me was different than any other graduate schools that I was considering. She was passionate, and that is really what I wanted.”

The Bridge to the Doctorate program also drew Rosa to FIU. “In 2015 I received my acceptance into the Chemistry program as a master’s student,” she says. “I also received my acceptance and offer letter for the Bridge to the Doctorate program.”

Once Rosa arrived at FIU, she began interviewing for laboratory positions and discovered that the research being conducted in the chemistry department lined up well with her own research interests. She ended up with an offer to work with her current professor, Dr. Bruce McCord. 

A McKnight fellow, Rosa entered the chemistry doctoral program in Fall 2017, continuing her work with Dr. McCord. “His excitement for having me in his laboratory has showed how motivated and passionate he was to helping me towards my goals as a forensic scientist,” Rosa says.

In addition to being a passionate student of math and science, Rosa is also passionate about teaching the subjects to children. “I have served as a lead summer camp instructor for a science summer camp with the City of Miami Gardens,” Rosa says. “I hope to continue to be able to lead as an example in my community and teach the youth about the greatness of STEM.” 

In addition to her work with children, Rosa has served two terms as president of the McKnight Doctoral Fellows Graduate Student Organization. She is also one of the founders and the current president of the Forensic Science Graduate Student Organization.

Upon completing her degree, Rosa would like to work in a forensic laboratory, preferably for the military, creating new and innovative work to help society. “I look to work my way up within my career to work as the principal investigator of many projects and continuing to publish as much of my work as possible,” she says. 

Aaron Hogan

“Tropical forests are the lungs of the planet,” says 3rd-year biology doctoral student Aaron Hogan, explaining that tropical forests exchange the majority of atmospheric carbon dioxide and oxygen annually. It’s one of the many fascinating facts that drew Aaron to study tropical forests.

Aaron, a native of Breckenridge, Colorado, first became interested in biology, especially forests, as a teenager. “I saw the devastation that the mountain pine beetle caused in Colorado,” he says. “The lack of severe freezes allowed the pathogenic beetle to spread epidemically and cause massive die offs of Lodgepole pines.” Around the same time, Aaron took his first trip to Costa Rica and fell in love with the high levels of biodiversity in the tropics.

Aaron completed his undergraduate work at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, earning a B.Sc in Ecology and Biodiversity. He completed his master’s work at the University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras in San Juan, Puerto Rico, earning a M.Sc of Ciencias Ambientales (environmental sciences).

A graduate fellow with the US Department of Energy, Aaron is currently conducting research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. His research interests center on tropical forests, their ecology, and how they will function as biological systems in the future. One area that he is particularly interested in is the morphology and functioning of tropical tree roots. This requires connecting root organ form to biological function and determining how that might be affected by climate change. At ORNL, Aaron, in conjunction with staff scientists at the lab, is examining how root respiration rates are affected by temperature and will aim to relate those physiological results to root form.

“That becomes labor intensive if you focus on the thousands of tree species present in tropical forests,” Aaron says. He has chosen to focus on one tree as a model, the Teak tree from tropical India and Southeast Asia.

Aaron chose FIU for his graduate studies because of the facilities and the many collaborating institutions that are doing cutting-edge research in the tropics. “In our department, we have great scientists working throughout the tropics on a wide variety of organisms, from sharks to seagrasses, from mangrove trees to tropical reptiles, and almost everything in between,” Aaron says. Collaborating organizations with a deep interest in tropical plant ecology and conservation include The Fairchild Garden, the Kampong, Montgomery Botanical Center, Miami-Dade County, the Everglades National Park and the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program.

Once Aaron completes his doctoral work, he hopes to find employment that will allow him to pursue his scientific interests. He also wants to continue to provide understanding regarding the current and future ecology of tropical forests as the world continues to change.

Hassan Eldeeb

Hassan Eldeeb has been interested in green energy since his undergraduate days. His undergraduate and master’s degrees are in the field of electric power and machine engineering, and his master’s thesis was about the integration and operation of large-scale photovoltaic panels into the medium voltage electricity grid. He has always believed that research should have an impact on industry.

“Engineering is about finding and enhancing the solutions of existing industrial challenges, rather than finding a solution of an imaginary problem that might happen decades from now,” Hassan says.

Hassan is now a third-year doctoral student in Electrical and Computer Engineering at FIU, and his research into the systems that power electric vehicles recently earned him two awards from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He won the Best Paper Presentation award at the 2019 IEEE Applied Power Electronics Conference and Exposition (APEC) in March 2019. The APEC conference is the major annual conference sponsored by the IEEE Power Electronics Society and focuses on developments in power electronics for practical utilization in industry. Hassan also won the Best Student Poster Award at the 53rd IEEE Industry Applications Society (IAS) annual meeting in September 2018. The IAS conference, the largest annual conference organized by IAS, focuses on developments and contributions in electrical engineering that directly impact industry. 

Hassan was born in Cairo, Egypt, and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ain Shams University in Cairo. Before coming to FIU in Fall 2016, Hassan was searching for research groups and labs that have a strong publication history and academic reputation in electric energy systems, motor drives, and power electronics, in particular. At FIU, he found Dr. Osama Mohammad’s energy systems research lab, a place that Hassan describes as a dreamland for him. 

“My research focuses on enhancing the reliability of electric vehicles through the early detection of faults that might happen in the motor drive system of the vehicle,” Hassan says. “That is done using physics-based and mathematical models and digital signal processing to create the digital twin (clone) of the drive system that can alert the vehicle’s driver of the fault’s existence at its embryonic stages so he/she can schedule maintenance quickly.”

Hassan hopes that his research will help prevent catastrophic outcomes resulting from undetected electrical faults within hybrid and electrical vehicles. “With the ongoing revolution in the transportation industry, and the commercial availability of hybrid and electric vehicles (cars and buses), and the ongoing monumental efforts in the aviation industry to move toward hybrid or completely electric aircraft, the reliability of such systems was (and is still) a big issue that requires serious investigations. Unlike mechanical failures, the electrical faults propagate very quickly, and if the faults were not predicted or detected at their initial stages, they will lead to catastrophic consequences.”

Hassan’s dream job is to work in the research and development lab of an industrial organization such as the R&D departments of Siemens or Tesla. Hassan would also like to return to academia to teach new generations about the industrial importance of what they learn in the classroom.

Hassan gives credit to his family for his success. “I would love to express my ample gratitude to my parents, my sister, and wife, Mrs. Nourhan Abdelfatah, who is a PhD student at the Civil and Environmental Engineering department of FIU,” he says. “I would never be able to achieve any good without their support.”

Sana Nasim

Even though biological systems and engineering are two paths that seem to lead in different directions, Sana Nasim has always envisioned pursuing a career in the two fields. In Pakistan, where Sana was born and raised, she says the study of highly specialized engineering fields is uncommon. Even rarer are women in these fields. Sana’s aspirations remained with her, however, and she is now working towards a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering, a field that merges her two dream career paths. 

Sana, a 4th-year doctoral student in FIU’s biomedical engineering program, moved from Pakistan to the United States with her family in 2008 to pursue better educational opportunities. After finishing high school, she began attending the New Jersey Institute of Technology, majoring in biomedical engineering and minoring in mathematics. It was at this point that she became passionate about the interdisciplinary aspect of biomedical engineering.

Sana initially came to FIU because of the NSF Bridge to the Doctorate Fellowship, which covered her first two years of doctoral study. She cites the outstanding support group that accompanies the fellowship as an important factor in her decision. Sana will continue her biomedical engineering work with the support of a $60,000 grant funded by the Miami Heart Research Institute. 

The Miami Heart Research Institute, also known as the Florida Heart Research Foundation, is a non-profit organization whose mission is to stop heart disease through education and prevention. Sana’s grant, titled “Phenotypic and Functional Characterization of Neural Crest-derived Aortic Valve Interstitial Cells,” is renewable for an additional year and will enable Sana to perform interdisciplinary research. She will work towards understanding more about how neural crest-derived cells affect the aortic valve extracellular matrix. 

“This grant helps expand the understanding of the regulation and formation of elastin in the aortic valve,” Sana says. 

After completing her doctoral degree, Sana plans to pursue a post-doctoral position in an interdisciplinary lab where she can utilize her engineering and biomolecular skills. Eventually, she would like to work at NIH as a research scientist and teach on a part-time basis.

Beyond her scientific goals, Sana wants to encourage others to pursue knowledge and further their education. “I want to empower women to pursue higher education and take initiatives to question unanswered questions in the research realm as well as in our society,” she says. “I want to bring awareness from my being that you could be anything that you dream to become.”

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