The seven UCF graduate students who have been named National Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering (GEM) Fellows for 2022 are from, top left: S. Novia Berriel, Dania Jean-Baptiste, Kiaria Tucker, Andrea Molina Moreno, and from bottom left: Jason Ortiz, Joseph Green, and Jeffrey Chan-Santiago.

Engineering Graduate Fellows Get Hands-on Experience with National Industry Leaders

By: Alexandra Angeloff on

Seven University of Central Florida graduate students are currently interning at Adobe and 3M, among other leading employers thanks to fellowships supported by the National Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering Fellowship (GEM) program.

The GEM program began in 1976. The public-private partnership aims to connect students from underrepresented groups with the nation’s top employers and universities. Those selected receive a $16,000 fellowship from the GEM Consortium, a paid summer internship, and a tuition remission for a master’s or doctoral program of their choice. The national program is highly competitive and enables students to be placed in coveted internships with some of the nation’s industry leaders in STEM.

UCF has been a partner university for more than 20 years. The GEM program is one of several supporting students of color at UCF, a Hispanic Serving Institution.

This year’s UCF GEM Fellows are:

Novia Berriel ’21MS

Currently a researcher in associate professor of materials science Parag Banerjee’s lab, Novia Berriel will continue her education as a doctoral fellow in materials science. She originally came to UCF because of the so-called “two-body problem” — the need for two professional spouses to find suitable placements in the same area — but has since fallen in love with everything the university offers.

“UCF is at the cutting edge of everything,” she says. “And being a Hispanic woman, I appreciate that it’s an HSI.”

Berriel earned her master’s in physics at UCF in 2021. Since she began her degree in 2018, she has been working to explore the atomic layer deposition of thin films. In this capacity, she’s been able to engage with different disciplines by producing the films needed for a variety of devices.

The opportunity “to be interdisciplinary in your everyday life” is one of her favorite aspects of the materials science department at UCF.

“You can collaboratively interface with so many other labs,” Berriel says. “I work in Research Building I, which houses faculty and labs from many different departments. So, I’ve been able to meet experts in different disciplines by just walking around.”

As a GEM fellow and intern for Lam Research, she hopes to build expertise in semiconductor development and solar cells, while making the most of the chance to research freely, meet other Fellows and embrace interdisciplinary collaboration.

Jeffrey Chan-Santiago

Drawn to UCF’s state-of-the-art research at “the intersection of computer vision, machine learning, and robotics,” Jeffrey Chan-Santiago knew it would be the best place to earn his doctorate in computer science.

He already has experience applying self-supervised models to monitor and identify honeybees in their natural habitat, modify architectural plans, and more through work he conducts at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. He earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the university and is currently completing his master’s degree in applied mathematics.

He is also an intern at Raytheon for the summer. There and at UCF, he hopes to “enable robots to learn more efficiently and safely.”

He says he is grateful to be at one of the first steps of a lifelong career in research, and he plans to become a professor, ideally in Puerto Rico, and help motivate students toward research careers in STEM.

Joseph Green

As a GEM fellow at UCF and an intern for Adobe, Joseph Green hopes to broaden his every horizon.

He received his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2020 at Auburn University and says he is eager to transition to highly populated Orlando, which has attractions like Walt Disney World.

Green credits his participation in the GEM Fellowship program to the encouragement he received as part of a learning community at Auburn. He says he looks forward to joining similarly supportive communities at UCF. This will be his first time living in an area he doesn’t know, but Green says he already knows he will have a great time experiencing a new school’s culture.

In the process, he says he will be able to see all the variety his field has to offer.

During his master’s program in computer science, he plans to make the most of the opportunity to pursue machine learning, complex networks, and other inspiring topics.

Dania Jean-Baptiste

Earning her bachelor’s degree with honors in computer information systems from Bethune-Cookman University in 2021 made Dania Jean-Baptiste realize how much she enjoyed her field — and how much she had left to learn.

To ensure her work would remain at the cutting edge of security standards, Baptiste decided to pursue a master’s degree in cybersecurity and privacy. She initially enrolled at Florida A&M University but decided to transfer to another university. Although the transition was difficult, she says having faith helped her continue her path.

So, she applied and was admitted to be a GEM Fellow at UCF. Her fellowship is sponsored by Intel. And this summer, Baptiste is participating in Tech Forward — a Salesforce training program that prepares participants from underrepresented groups to earn their certification in network administration.

Baptiste says she looks forward to enriching experiences in research. Her ultimate goal is to learn as much as she can about data analytics, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing. Then, she will be able to put her skills to use while giving back to her community.

Andrea Molina Moreno ’22 After building a foundation in the different areas of STEM, Andrea Molina Moreno decided to focus on materials engineering.

She says that “it has a uniquely broad scope. You can work with anything you choose since almost everything is material.”

Moreno came upon this decision in the midst of several transitions: immigrating from Caracas, Venezuela, transferring from Simón Bolívar University, and graduating among UCF’s first cohort of bachelor’s materials science students.

With the GEM fellowship, she will pursue a doctoral degree in materials science. This summer, she is gaining experience in the industry by interning at 3M in Minneapolis. As she continues her education, Moreno most looks forward to serving as a role model for fellow Hispanic female engineers.

What has motivated her so far is the desire to “gather as much knowledge as she possibly can.” She shares that “I’ve been studying for so much of my life, and it’s what I really enjoy doing — learning more and more.”

Jason Ortiz

The COVID-19 pandemic gave Jason Ortiz an opportunity to pause and “think back to some of his original passions.”

In 2021, he had already spent three years working as a software engineer at Microsoft in Seattle, where he enjoyed the opportunity to tackle exciting problems in cloud computing. Still, he had always hoped to further explore 3D applications. Extended reality (XR) — encompassing the spectrum of virtual, mixed, and augmented reality applications — particularly stood out to him.

He says he realized that “the field’s potential is outstanding. It can address a lot of problems related to isolation, by helping people work in novel ways while still feeling a sense of togetherness.” So, he did a bit of research in his downtime.

That’s when Ortiz discovered the pioneering work of UCF Engineering Professor Carolina Cruz-Neira. Even better, Cruz-Neira was teaching in Orlando, his hometown. The GEM Fellowship offered a way to return for his doctorate.

He jumped at the chance. Currently an intern at Argonne National Laboratory, Ortiz will begin as a student at UCF in the fall. He most looks forward to conducting innovative research on collaborative XR and building the teaching skills he began developing as an undergraduate teaching assistant. He is also eager to be the first in his family with a doctorate and hopes to encourage fellow Puerto Ricans to pursue higher education.

Kiaria Tucker

After years of watching crime shows and pointing out technicians as the real heroes, Kiaria Tucker found it easy to decide on a career path.

She remembers that “the detectives never actually held my interest. The technicians were the ones who could say ‘This is what happened. This is what the evidence shows.’ It’s thanks to the technicians that they had the evidence they needed to do anything.”

Forensic science offered the opportunity for excitement and a tangible impact. So, Tucker received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a forensic concentration from Talladega College. While there, she participated in the McNair Scholars Program, where a mentor encouraged her to apply to the GEM fellowship.

Since her acceptance, Tucker has explored microbiological chemistry research as an intern for Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee. This fall, she will begin as a thesis-seeking doctoral student in chemistry at UCF. Tucker says she looks forward to earning the skills and certifications that will make her a valuable member of a forensic team. She says from everything she’s seen so far, the field still never fails to excite her.

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