Graduate students awarded HHMI Gilliam Fellowships

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Graduate students Carlos Paz (left) and Matthew Mendoza

UT Southwestern neuroscience graduate student Matthew Mendoza is the first person in his family to go to college, let alone pursue a scientific career. And he’s certainly come a long way, working as a shoe salesman, an instructor for Mad Science, a University of North Texas (UNT) Mean Green Phone-a-thon fundraiser, and a UNT Career Center peer adviser to fund his education.

Mr. Mendoza and fellow UTSW graduate student Carlos Paz are among 39 graduate students nationwide recently awarded 2017 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study.

Each award provides $46,000 annually for three years, including a stipend, a training allowance, and an institutional allowance. Part of the award supports a year of mentoring and development activities for the student’s mentor.

Mr. Paz, who earned an undergraduate degree in biochemistry at San Diego State University, is currently studying the relationship of a protein’s thermodynamic stability of folding to its intrinsic adaptation capacity, known scientifically as its evolvability.

“Carlos is an ideal choice for support through the HHMI Gilliam Fellowship. He is an excellent young scientist who is excited about answering high-impact questions in biology, and he contributes through his own research and through outreach programs that improve diversity in science,” said Dr. Rama Ranganathan, Director of the Cecil H. and Ida Green Center for Molecular, Computational, and Systems Biology, and Mr. Paz’s mentor.

“I am thrilled to have been awarded the Gilliam Fellowship, and grateful to HHMI for the opportunities and resources it provides,” Mr. Paz said. “The Fellowship is intended to help increase diversity among academic scientists, and I hope to continue to work toward that goal through both personal preparation and involvement with diversity-oriented outreach organizations at UT Southwestern.”

Mr. Mendoza’s work in the laboratory of Dr. Lenora Volk, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, is aimed at understanding the molecular and synaptic basis of learning and memory, with a focus on how those processes mature with age.

“Matt has all of the qualities of a star scientist: He is a deep thinker, a hard worker, and is endlessly curious. In addition to his scientific merits, Matt has a long-standing passion for science outreach and promoting opportunities for underrepresented populations in science. His personal journey, perseverance, and generosity are truly inspirational, and I am gratified that the HHMI reviewers recognized his incredible potential,” Dr. Volk said.

“I’m beyond excited and grateful to have such an unbelievable opportunity,” said Mr. Mendoza. “Dr. Volk’s investment in her students is second to none. She is an incredible person and a phenomenal scientist.”

Mr. Mendoza described his family as large and complicated, with two older sisters, plus two younger nieces and a nephew, all raised as siblings. “In a way, I have ventured into completely uncharted territory by graduating college and deciding to pursue a Ph.D.,” he said, adding that science became an escape from the chaos of life. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at UNT.

He said two events changed the course of his life: his mother’s death in 2009 and his selection for a UNT McNair Scholars research program, which provided outstanding mentors whose guidance and faith in him gave him the confidence to apply to graduate school.

“Being accepted by UT Southwestern pushed my dream further into reality,” he said, adding that his ultimate goal is to become the Chief Diversity Officer at a large research institution.

Dr. Ranganathan holds the Cecil H. and Ida Green Chair in Biomedical Science.