Four students received the Beckman Institute Graduate Scholarship: Leykza Carreras-Simons, psychology; Maily Galindo, psychology; Isabelle Guerra, bioengineering; and Jimoh Igbalaye, bioengineering.
The pilot scholarship program supports prospective graduate researchers who identify with underrepresented backgrounds in science and technology fields and aims to increase the overall number of these students on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus.
The Beckman Institute developed the program in partnership with the Illinois Departments of Bioengineering and Psychology, which are home to 13 and 22 Beckman faculty researchers, respectively.
Scholarship recipients received $5,000 to support their first year and will receive an additional $5,000 to support their second year if they remain engaged in research at the Beckman Institute.
“At the end of the two-year cycle, we’ll evaluate how well this pilot worked and how we can do better, reach more students, because at the end of the day we want to serve prospective students however makes the most sense for them,” said Beckman’s associate director for research Cristina Álvarez-Mingote.
“I was impressed by the young scholars’ commitment and passion for research. It was also fascinating to learn more about their research,” she said.
Gift funding from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation supported the scholarship. Foundation gift money also supports the Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows Program, Beckman Institute Graduate Fellows Program, and Beckman Institute Undergraduate Fellows Program.
Scholarship recipient Jimoh Igbalaye relocated to Champaign-Urbana from Lagos, Nigeria last August to pursue his Ph.D. in bioengineering. He said that moving to a new country and starting graduate school in the same month posed a unique challenge, but the university’s support system ensured a strong start.
“The diverse and interdisciplinary environment at the Beckman Institute … is fascinating and inspiring, making a great community for collaborative and impactful research efforts. I feel incredibly honored to be one of the awardees,” said Igbalaye, who is working with Beckman researcher and Founder Professor in Bioengineering Joseph Irudayaraj.
Isabelle Guerra, also a bioengineering Ph.D. student, earned her B.S. in the same subject from the University of Illinois. She collaborated with Catherine Best-Popescu as an undergraduate researcher.
“Illinois afforded me the opportunity to pursue my dreams both as an athlete, as a division one swimmer, and as a scientist, conducting research on neurodegenerative disorders,” Guerra said.
She said studying disorders like Alzheimer’s disease allowed her to combine her compassion for people with her passion for science. Her graduate research with Professor Pablo Perez-Pinera aims to develop gene therapies for neurodegenerative and neuromuscular disorders.
“I’m excited to contribute to the development of these therapies and hope to one day see them in practice,” she said.
Maily Galindo “became fascinated by the human mind” in high school, she said. Her interests sharpened to language development during her psychology bachelor’s at Loyola University Chicago, and she's currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Illinois in cognitive psychology.
“As a bilingual speaker myself, I was captured by language and its development. I joined a bilingual language lab where we followed young bilingual children for a year and a half to get [a] better sense of their home environment,” she said.
In collaboration with faculty advisor Jessica Montag, Galindo's research will involve observing how infants' exposure to language at home impacts their language development.
“I’m excited for my research to bring about insights into the language experiences of a variety of children, like those in under-studied but enormously common families, including second language learners, children who attend daycare, and multi-generational households,” she said.
Taking a cellular approach to psychology, Leykza Carreras-Simons studies how the neurons in our brains organize themselves and communicate with one another to impact how we think and behave.
“I had always felt really interested in how [thoughts] and behavior work and thought it was amazing how this happens on a cellular level. I was curious about picking that apart, understanding how these processes work and what it meant for people, other species, and the environment that shapes it and is shaped by [it]. … I felt there was something really meaningful and important in doing this work in a way that lifts others up as well,” she said.
Carreras-Simons earned her B.A. in psychology from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Now, she is pursuing her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience in collaboration with Beckman researcher and psychology professor Sepideh Sadaghiani.
“Having the opportunity to begin my graduate work at Beckman has been a fun and exciting experience where I’m always inspired by the good science, but especially the good people, that make it possible.
“By collaborating with Beckman faculty members, I'm excited for opportunities to build community through interdisciplinary research and mentorship, particularly in ways to support diverse identities and minoritized groups in science,” Carreras-Simons said.
Galindo, Carreras-Simons, Guerra, and Igbalaye met Beckman Institute Interim Director Cathy Murphy, last fall.
“It’s been such a pleasure to get to know these wonderful students,” said Murphy, the Larry R. Faulkner Endowed Chair in Chemistry. “It has been very interesting for me to learn how the graduate programs in psychology and bioengineering differ from chemistry. I am so glad that Beckman can directly support excellent students.”