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A record-breaking 16 UCF students and alumni were named National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellows this year — with an additional seven singled out for honorable mentions.

Started in 1952, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is the oldest graduate research program of its kind and recognizes graduating seniors and first-year graduate students studying in STEM disciplines. Awardees receive an annual stipend of $34,000 for three years as well as $12,000 that can be used toward tuition and fees. As part of the five-year fellowship, recipients also have opportunities for international research and professional development and the freedom to conduct their own research. Past fellows include Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

“I’m so proud of the Knights who received NSF Graduate Research Fellowships and those who were named honorable mentions,” says UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “This is truly a momentous accomplishment in their research careers and is indicative of the tremendous potential they have in their respective fields. UCF continues to break its own records in the number of recipients of these prestigious awards and recognitions each year. We also acknowledge the commitment and hard work of our amazing faculty who mentor our undergraduate and graduate researchers and enable them to participate in path-breaking innovation while studying here at UCF.”

For the 2021 competition, NSF received more than 13,000 applications and offered only 2,074 awards.

Meet this year’s fellow from MSE:

Ashley Santana

Ashley Santana

Majors: Biotechnology and biomedical sciences

University Involvement: McNair Scholar, member of the Student Undergraduate Research Council, transfer student peer mentor for the Office of Undergraduate Research, former vice president for the Eureka Research Society, and a former undergraduate researcher in the Soft Functional Materials and Sensors Lab.

Research: BAF chromatin remodeling complexes are what are known as epigenetic regulators, meaning they play significant roles in activating or suppressing certain cellular functions. Their failure to operate properly is linked to human disease, most commonly cancer. When it comes to all types of cancer, BAF chromatin remodeling complexes play a significant role in the suppression of tumors with roughly 20% of all cancer deaths showing defects, making them among the most common when it comes to malignant diagnoses. Santana’s research is comparing the protein composition found in these complexes both in cancerous and healthy tissues. “Understanding the unique protein compositions of cancerous chromatin remodeling complexes can advance the creation of cancer therapeutics with specificity in inhibiting tumor growth,” she says.

Up Next: After graduating, Santana plans to pursue a graduate degree in biomedical sciences with the ultimate goal of becoming a biotechnologist and contributing to the development of therapeutics for human disease.