Press Release for Wednesday, March 31, 2021
UNF biology student awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship
Raul Chavarria, a University of North Florida senior majoring in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution, received the competitive and highly exclusive National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP) for his revolutionary research idea to study the Notch signaling pathway in tardigrades.
The GRFP provides three years of graduate education support for individuals who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements in STEM or STEM education and encourages members of underrepresented minority groups to apply.
Chavarria, who is of Nicaraguan heritage and a local graduate of Robert E. Lee high school, has been working with Dr. Frank Smith, UNF biology assistant professor, to study the evolution and development of tardigrades or microscopic animals also known as water bears.
During their work, Chavarria came up with the idea to study the Notch signaling pathway. This major developmental pathway controls development in many animals including humans, but its exact role has always been mysterious. Since tardigrades are much simpler than many animals, it may be easier to diagnose the exact developmental roles of this pathway in tardigrades.
“Raul's idea was far beyond what is typical for even the best Graduate Research Fellowship applications, said Dr. Frank Smith, UNF biology assistant professor. “It is basically the crowning achievement of future scientists at Raul's academic level. This is an amazing accomplishment.”
Chavarria recently presented his tardigrade research at the 2020 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in Austin, Texas, and received the Best Student Presentation award. He will present at UNF’s upcoming Showcase of Osprey Advancements in Research and Scholarship (SOARS) conference and is preparing to submit his first manuscript in collaboration with Dr. Smith.
“I’d like to acknowledge that I am standing on the shoulders of giants,” shared Chavarria. “This small success would not be possible without the huge amount of sacrifice and work that previous scientists from underrepresented minorities have put in to make STEM a more diverse environment. Without them paving the way and being brave enough to pursue their passions, I wouldn’t be here.”
Chavarria also plans to start a Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science chapter at UNF in Fall 2021. He hopes the club will “create an atmosphere where bright individuals from any background can pursue their passions while also feeling supported and loved.”