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NMSU alumna receives prestigious 2016 NSF award

As a teenager growing up in Grants, New Mexico, Kathryn Sanchez never thought she was good at STEM subjects. However, her father’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis and a local science fair competition that led to an international fair changed her mind.

Head and shoulders of woman wearing glasses
NMSU alumna Kathryn Sanchez has been named a 2016 NSF Graduate Research Fellow and is pursuing her doctorate at Georgetown University. (Courtesy Photo)

Now the New Mexico State University graduate is pursuing her Ph.D. at Georgetown University as a 2016 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. The NSF Graduate Research Fellow Program (GRFP) provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period ($34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution).

“When my father was diagnosed with MS, he showed my sister and I literature about the disease and I saw the types of things that were done in a clinical setting,” said Sanchez. “I knew I wanted to help people with this illness but I wasn’t sure how I could do that.”

While pursuing her bachelor’s degree at NMSU, Sanchez discovered her path to research through two programs funded by the National Institutes of Health and supervised by Regents Professor in biology Elba Serrano: the Blueprint Program for Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences (NIH-BP-ENDURE) and the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (NIH-RISE) – both within NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“Katy was always exceptional," Serrano said. “The first time I met Katy she had well-defined research interests that she could articulate clearly. She is an unusual student because she was already thinking about policy implications and ethical dimensions surrounding her research questions even as she began to engage in lab research.”

Sanchez, who graduated from NMSU in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and minors in government and biochemistry, is among the 2,000 students chosen across the country to receive the 2016 NSF award out of about 17,000 applicants.

“She always challenged herself by setting high goals, such as majoring in biology and minoring in government (two disparate majors),” Serrano said. “She also has a rare gift - she can listen to suggestions for improvement and act on them in a practical way - in other words she is responsive but has a strong sense of identity and purpose.”

Serrano explained programs such as NIH-BP ENDURE and NIH-RISE supplement mentored research training with professional career skills and also help to expand students’ professional networks. “For minority students and economically disadvantaged students, the programs also play a critical role in social acculturation. Programs can articulate the unspoken expectations and values of the academic and STEM professional workplace that are not related to expertise or skills but are essential for career success.”

Sanchez, who was also a member of NMSU’s Model UN team and a student panelist in the 2014 Domenici Conference, credits the professional development opportunities she received through NMSU programs with helping her to succeed.

In her first year at Georgetown, she has rotated through three labs and will soon narrow her research focus.

“I was unsure if I wanted to pursue neuroscience research specifically,” Sanchez said. “However after working with Dr. Serrano, I knew that I wanted to study the central nervous system. Dr.Serrano also encouraged me to design my project. As an undergraduate, this was a great opportunity to learn experimental design and how to problem solve.”

“I also appreciated that the program provided me with Latina role models and mentors who were able to support me, and show me that I too could succeed in science.”