15 UCF Students Named National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows

By: Carreen Krapf on

Angelina Leary, a student in UCF’s Clinical Psychology doctoral program, is one of 15 students at the university named a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.

The NSF program recognizes outstanding students who have demonstrated significant achievements in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The students are either in their senior year of college and plan to continue their education or already in their first year of graduate school.

The NSF awarded only 2,076 fellowships nationwide. Recipients get funding that covers their college tuition and fees for three years in addition to a monthly stipend. The idea is that with most costs covered, students can focus on their innovative research as they complete their advanced degrees. For UCF students this year, it represents more than $2 million in funding.

“Research is a vital part of preparing our students,” said Elizabeth Klonoff, vice president for the Office of Research at UCF. “I’ve been an NSF reviewer for these fellowships. I know how tough the competition is and to have so many of our students selected speaks to the quality of our students and our research mentoring.”

The recipients have until May 7 to decide where they will go to graduate school. But for Leary, there was no question she would continue at UCF.

“Once a Knight, always a Knight,” she says proudly. She credits the faculty for her decision to complete her doctoral work at UCF.

They have challenged her in her academic pursuits and fueled her passion to dismantle stigmas and increase the presence of people with disability/chronic illnesses in graduate programs, she says.

Leary was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her senior year of high school. Since then she has been working with organizations to advocate for students with disabilities.

Her passion for improving lives is also a theme in her doctoral research.

Leary uses the REALE (Risk, Eating & Addiction Longitundinally Examined Through In situ Momentary Experiences) Time Lab in the Department of Psychology, which the Substance Use Research Group at UCF uses to develop and test brief motivation interventions to increase healthy behaviors.

Angela Leary is one of 15 UCF students named a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.

Leary has also investigated the use of social identity theory, known as deviance regulation theory, to promote safe drinking among college students. She is currently extending this research in order to test a brief online intervention to see if it can encourage better adoption of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NSF Fellowship will allow her to leverage this same approach to increase healthy eating and physical activity. The 23-year-old also plans to explore whether identity change is the driving force toward sustained behavioral change. She suspects interventions that only target behavior change results in short-term outcomes, while others that drive identity change have much more long-term results. Her research will determine if her hypothesis is true and if so, it could significantly impact efforts to help people change harmful behavior.

“Her research has the potential for very a broad impact,” says Robert Dvorak, psychology associate professor and Leary’s advisor and mentor. “I am grateful that I will be able to help guide her on her scientific path. She is definitely a rising star in the field of brief interventions for behavior change.”

UCF has a strong research program for undergraduates, giving students a multitude of opportunities to get hands-on experience. For example, UCF hosts an annual Student Research Week at which undergraduate and graduate students showcase their work. UCF has also had a history of strong representation at the Florida Undergraduate Research Conference, the nation’s largest multi-disciplinary research conference for undergraduates. Graduate students have access to some funding to help them publish their work and travel to conferences to present. For the past few years, the students have also had the opportunity to compete in the 3MT (Three Minute Thesis) competition.

Many of this year’s recipients of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships are Burnett Honors College students or are part of the McNair Scholar Program (McNair) or Research and Mentoring Program (RAMP) at UCF.  They are:

  • Carla Garcia – College of Sciences, Honors, McNair
  • Samuel Greaves – College of Sciences
  • Debraliz Isaac-Aragones – College of Engineering and Computer Science alumna, McNair
  • Angelina Leary – College of Sciences, Honors
  • Lindsay Martin – College of Medicine, Honors
  • Victor Rodriguez – College of Engineering and Computer Science, McNair alumnus
  • Alex Ruiz – College of Engineering and Computer Science
  • Adam Searles – College of Sciences, Honors, RAMP
  • Leslie Simms – College of Engineering and Computer Science alumna
  • Chelsea Shoben – College of Medicine alumna
  • Irene Tanner – College of Engineering and Computer Science, Honors
  • Angie Torres-Beltran – College of Sciences alumna
  • Milton Valdiviezo – College of Sciences, Honors
  • Bridget Vincent-– College of Sciences alumna, Honors, RAMP
  • George Walters-Marrah – College of Medicine, McNair

“The NSF supports our brightest minds as they embark on careers that will change the landscape of our world. We are proud of the presence of so many Burnett Honors College Scholars among the winners this and previous years, and it serves as a tribute to the exemplary standard of excellence among our students,” says Sheila Amin Gutiérrez de Piñeres, dean of the Honors College. “Many of these recipients were also provided assistance through the application process from UCF’s Office of Prestigious Awards, an office housed within BHC but which serves all UCF students. The meticulous care that offices like OPA put into guiding and advising students through every step of the application process helps propel our students toward success and ensures they can benefit from incredible opportunities such as NSF.”

Students interested in finding out more about applying for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship or other major national awards should contact the Office of Prestigious Awards, at opa@ucf.edu.

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