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Chatting with AAAS Travel Award Winners About Research, Goals and Advice

Each year, deserving students receive the Joshua E. Neimark Memorial Travel Assistance Award, which provides grants to help talented scientists to travel to the AAAS Annual meeting and present at the poster presentations. Five students received the travel award this year: Luz Cumba-Garcia, Joseph Iafrate, Meredith Richardson, Catherine Steffel and Kirsten Hecht.

We were lucky enough to chat with many of the Joshua E. Neimark Memorial Travel Award recipients to discuss research they presented at the AAAS Annual Meeting, their start in their field of research, the best advice they’ve ever received, and more!

Check out some of their answers below and join us in congratulating the Joshua E. Neimark Memorial Travel Award recipients!


Luz Cumba-Garcia
Luz Cumba-Garcia.

Luz Cumba-Garcia, Immunology Department at the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

What research are you presenting at the AAAS Annual Meeting?

At the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting, I will be presenting my research focused on a non-invasive way to diagnose brain tumors, such as glioblastoma (GBM), and monitor treatment outcomes with a simple blood draw. We are in the process of patenting this diagnostic tool, which is based on the analysis of small particles, called extracellular vesicles (EVs), shed from brain tumors that can be found in GBM patients’ plasma. This technology could potentially be used by anyone to screen for brain tumors as well as to assess therapy outcomes in patients enrolled in clinical trials or in any other tumor therapy.

What would you like other people to know about you?

I would like other people to know that I am a PROUD Puerto Rican and Latina scientist, passionate about life and what I do, and with the urge of contributing to society through science. I love traveling to expose my research to others and at the same time learn from different cultures and diverse points of view. I love God and my family with all I have and my main goal in life is being happy and seeing them happy. In terms of my career goals, I aim to become an advocate for cancer patients by building networks and mobilizing local grassroots efforts for national advocacy campaigns. In the future, I would like to work in partnerships between countries for the advancement of science, for example, to bring specific types of technologies and immunotherapies to cancer patients worldwide.


Joseph Iafrate
Joseph Iafrate.

Joseph Iafrate, Physics Department at the University of Michigan

What research are you presenting at the AAAS Annual Meeting?

This year, I'm following up on my 2019 poster presentation and what has become the central focus of my dissertation research. My group uses lasers to study the physics of electron spins in semiconductors. The end goal of this research area (other than to uncover cool, new physics) is to revolutionize electronics with spin-based devices.

What drew you to your field of research?

If you had met me at any point from elementary school through 11th grade and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, you most likely would have gotten "author" or "writer" or "journalist." That plan went out the window when I met calculus. I'm not sure exactly what clicked, but I pivoted to wanting a career that integrated my new math skills. Looking back, I realize that my desire to be a writer was really a desire to be a storyteller, so science communication has tied all these interests together in a way I had not been expecting.

What is the best advice you've ever received?

Every person has a story, and that story is worth hearing. One of the best ways to get to know someone and their story, one of the best ways to connect with someone is to share a meal with them. This was demonstrated to me by my peers at Williams who invited me to dinner in the dining halls and encouraged me to do the same with others.


Meredith Richardson
Meredith Richardson. Credit: Lauren Logan.

Meredith Richardson, Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

What research are you presenting at the AAAS Annual Meeting?

I am presenting about how ecosystem behavior (in terms of thermodynamic indicators) fluctuates before and after a disturbance event, such as logging or a controlled burn. This meeting has scientists from so many different disciplines, so I am looking forward to practicing explaining my research to a broader audience and making sure everyone understands the point and importance of my work.

What is the best advice you've ever received?

“HYSU!” – a text my mom randomly sends me. It means Hold your shoulders up! My parents have always taught me to stand tall (even though I’m 6’3”), reminding me to walk with confidence everywhere I go. In so doing, this confidence has translated to other areas of my life, such as academics, athletics, and simply meeting new people.

What would you like other people to know about you?

I am a former D1 volleyball (not basketball) player getting a PhD in Civil Engineering, and I love to coach young athletes. I want every girl to have the confidence my parents instilled in me and to have the choice and opportunity to go into a STEM field. I am fascinated by topics across disciplines and would love to find a career that exposes me to a variety of scientific topics and allows me to advocate for great science, scientists, and engineers.


Catherine Steffel
Catherine Steffel.

Catherine Steffel, Department of Medical Physics at the University of Wisconsin

What research are you presenting at the AAAS Annual Meeting? 

My research is working toward the development of a comprehensive stroke risk-assessment tool, which is important because stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause of death worldwide. In my research, I use ultrasound imaging to see atherosclerotic deposits in the carotid arteries called carotid plaques. Then, I use the ultrasound signals to develop quantitative parameters that help us determine what tissues are in these carotid plaques and in what amounts. Being able to determine this tissue content information is critical for stroke risk assessment because the type and amount of certain tissues, such as cholesterol, may make an individual more susceptible to stroke. At the Annual Meeting, I am presenting on a subset of this research. This work uses texture features derived from ultrasound images that were acquired from carotid plaques at nine different angles. Our results show that using these multiple images to assess plaque tissue content can provide additional information compared to a single image alone.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Continually revisit where you want to be in 10 years. This piece of advice can be pretty easy to push to the back of your mind in grad school, but I’ve found that keeping it front and center gets me through some of my hardest days both in and out of the lab.

What would you like other people to know about you?

I thrive when I’m learning about many different things and writing about them. This may seem like the antithesis of grad school and getting a doctoral degree, but I chose physics because of the challenges it provides and the unique way it illuminates the world. Getting an advanced degree in medical physics has helped me develop the skills needed to communicate complex topics in understandable ways to a variety of audiences.


Kirsten Hecht
Kirsten Hecht. Credit: Florida Museum of Natural History.

Kirsten Hecht, School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida

What research did you present at the AAAS Annual Meeting?

This was my first AAAS meeting, and I was excited to present a portion of my dissertation research which focuses on how and why herpetologists—scientists who study reptiles and amphibians—engage with the public about their science.

What drew you to your field of research?

I’ve always been drawn to biology since a young age. I was that kid playing with toads and snakes in the backyard. Thanks to an amazing high school biology teacher, I ended up on the biology track for a career, but more recently I’ve taken a slight left turn. When you work in any type of natural resources management or wildlife conservation, it doesn’t take long to realize that biological aspects are only one piece of the puzzle. These issues revolve heavily around society and people. This led me to enroll in an interdisciplinary ecology program at the University of Florida for my MS and PhD. My aim is to help bring communication and behavioral psychology best practices to the broader fields of ecology and conservation through my research.

What would you like other people to know about you?

I’m a mom to an awesome kid who happens to help me to do public engagement events sometimes. Being a parent is an important part of who I am, and it gives me a lot of motivation to succeed as a scientist. I was told in undergrad that I would have to choose between having kids and having a research career, but luckily my path and representation of other science moms has shown me that this isn’t true.  It has not been without its challenge, however. Because of the experiences I’ve had as a mother in science, it is important to me that I also advocate where appropriate to help make science and conservation fields more inclusive so that people from all backgrounds can have the same chance to enter science and succeed.

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Alexandra Kirby