Three recent Queens College graduates—Nohely Cesarina Abreu (Life Sciences-Cell Biology), class of 2016; Adolmary Peña (Cultural Anthropology) and Patryk Perkowski (Economics), both class of 2014—have been awarded 2017 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships, one of the most prestigious and competitive grants in the nation. Each five-year fellowship provides a total of $138,000 over three years for tuition and other education-related expenses, along with opportunities for international research and professional development to prepare the recipient for a science research career.
In addition, the NSF named among its Honorable Mentions Davneet Kaur, a 2015 graduate (Physics), and Tamar Lichter, (Mathematics), who will graduate from Queens College this spring with degrees in both math and the Macaulay Honors College.
Since 2012, Queens College has had 17 NSF awardees and Honorable Mentions among its recent graduates. All have gone on to such prestigious universities as Yale, University of Michigan and Columbia.
Queens College President Félix V. Matos Rodríguez said, “With the awarding of the latest NSF fellowships, we applaud these students, whose intelligence, determination and dream of research careers in science have earned them this great honor. We also applaud and thank the dedicated faculty members who recognized the students’ potential and became their mentors, offering practical advice, support, and steadfast encouragement to pursue their dreams.”
Nohely Cesarina Abreu, originally a pre-med student, became interested in biomedical research after taking a course in her sophomore year with psychology Professor Carolyn Pytte, a behavioral neuroscientist. The course piqued Abreu’s curiosity, and so she joined Pytte’s laboratory, using lab mice to study the effects of common toxic mold on learning, memory and brain inflammation. Her research goal was to understand how inhaled mold spores can cause the types of cognitive deficits sometimes seen in people exposed to mold in buildings.
“Professor Pytte’s expertise and genuine enthusiasm for neuroscience were motivating factors in my desire to become a scientist,” said Abreu, who became a Neuroscience Honors major. She has been conducting full-time research at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine since last June. This fall she will be back in New York, enrolled in a PhD program at the Weill-Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. A child of Dominican-born parents, Abreu is a first-generation college student.
“Nohely fell in love with scientific discovery in the lab,” said Pytte. “She realized she could contribute to society by advancing scientific knowledge through research. It has always been deeply important to her to give back to the community and make a difference in people’s lives.” Besides tutoring fellow students in biology, chemistry and physics, Abreu also served as a team leader and volunteer for New York Cares and delivered meals to senior citizens through Citymeals on Wheels.
“I want to teach other minority students the importance of careers in research, serving as a leader and advocate of science in my community,” said Abreu. “I am so appreciative of this honor.”
Adolmary Peña, whose parents also emigrated from the Domincan Republic, expected from a young age that she would become a fashion designer. A talented artist, Pena attended Fashion Industries High School and then the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT-SUNY). While enrolled, she interned at New York-based fashion houses and managed a retail fashion store in SoHo.
When asked about her surprising change of career goal, Pena answered, “My observations prompted questions about the social inequalities that structure labor in creative fields. I knew that majoring in anthropology would provide tools to answer these questions.”
She found her future through cultural anthropology at Queens College. In her second year, anthropology Professor Mandana Limbert urged Pena to apply for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, whose mission is to increase diversity among faculty at colleges and universities. Pena received the fellowship, which funded her senior research project in the Dominican Republic. That thesis, in turn, played a key role in her NSF application.
“My research was on cultural memory,” she said. “The country was commemorating its first democratically elected president through monument building. I focused on how these visual codes were being reworked to construct a collective national memory for Dominicans.”
Anthropology Professor John Collins noted that Pena also made a film while doing her research in Santo Domingo. “Mary is a dream student and also an accomplished writer and filmmaker,” he said. She is now working towards her PhD in anthropology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor which Collins described as “one of the top four doctoral programs in anthropology in the English-speaking world.”
“The mentorship I received under anthropology Professors John Collin, Karen Strassler and Omri Elisha was crucial to my career at Queens College. I am truly grateful for these invaluable relationships,” Pena said. Her ultimate professional goal as a cultural anthropologist is to combine university teaching with research that will integrate her original creative interests with science. “I want to find places where art and science intersect,” she said.
Patryk Perkowski, the 2014 Queens College valedictorian and member of the Macaulay Honors College, was born in a small town in Poland near the Belarus border. Like Abreu and Pena, he is the first in his family to attend college. At QC, he worked closely with two mentors. Under Professor Leonard Rodberg (Urban Studies), Perkowski conducted research on international health care systems, presenting his findings at conferences and at a national health policy competition at Rice University, where he won first place. “Through these opportunities, I became very interested in pursuing research as a career,” he said.
Guided by Professor John Devereux (Economics), Perkowski did research related to accidents caused by alcohol-impaired drivers. “Professor Devereux supervised my undergraduate thesis and helped me think about how to prepare for economics/management PhD programs,” said Perkowski, an economics major. “He also encouraged me to take master’s courses in economics to get more exposure to the subject. And Macaulay Honors College advisor Lorna Ronald pushed me to figure out what I wanted to do and was always looking for opportunities to expand my horizons.”
Devereux has proudly posted stories of his mentee’s success—which included a Fulbright Award—on the economics department website. “Patryk was a very good student indeed,” he said. “We stay in touch.”
Employed as a research associate at Columbia University following his QC graduation, Perkowski worked with a professor of political science and economics, providing data and analytic research on a project aiming to reduce poverty and violence in developing countries.
Perkowski has been accepted to Columbia Business School, where he will pursue a PhD in management. “I am especially interested in evaluating hiring screening techniques and how they can be used to reduce racial and gender discrimination,” he said. “My goal is to pursue this research through field experiments, working with firms as a professor.
“Winning the NSF is a humbling honor,” Perkowksi continued. “My parents, who fled Poland during the fall of the Soviet Union, couldn’t go to college. I am forever grateful for their sacrifices and for giving me countless opportunities to pursue my dreams.”
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