campus news

VITAL scholars return to UB

VITAL scholars pictured in a group.

Participants in this fall's VITAL program gather for a group photo on Monday in the Hampton Inn on Delaware Avenue before heading out on a bus tour of Buffalo. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published October 19, 2022

“VITAL directly supports UB’s mission to promote a culture of equity and inclusion, and recruit a diverse faculty. ”
Jacqueline Hollins, interim vice provost for inclusive excellence.

UB’s Visiting Future Faculty program (VITAL) returns for an encore this week as 34 outstanding doctoral students are on campus as part of an initiative to increase the number of faculty at UB from traditionally underrepresented populations in North America.

The university’s second cohort of VITAL scholars is under the guidance of the Office of Inclusive Excellence (OIX). All 34 are involved in research activities across a broad range of disciplines ranging from the humanities to STEM fields.

“VITAL directly supports UB’s mission to promote a culture of equity and inclusion, and recruit a diverse faculty,” says Jacqueline Hollins, interim vice provost for inclusive excellence.

“The program provides opportunities for PhD scholars from historically underrepresented backgrounds to present and receive feedback on their research and engage with each other and with UB staff, faculty and students.”

Visiting Future Faculty Week, which began on Monday and runs through tomorrow, is part cultural exchange, part scholarship. VITAL participants engage with UB faculty and students, meet other scholars in the program and learn about the many advantages of living in Western New York.

The scholars also learned about Buffalo’s history as they traveled through the city on a tour Monday guided by Alfred Price, associate professor emeritus in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning.

The visit concludes Thursday evening with an event at the Darwin Martin House.

“Our hope is that the VITAL alumni will recognize UB as an affirming and inclusive community, and that they will become lifelong ambassadors for the university,” Hollins says. “This enriching experience will enable scholars to highlight their groundbreaking research, expand their network of peers, foster relationships with innovative faculty members and experience Buffalo’s rich cultural heritage.

The VITAL scholars

Abiodun Adefola Adeosun.

Abiodun Adefola Adeosun, chemical, physical and structural biology, Baylor College of Medicine

Adeosun focuses her research on elucidating signaling pathways of the G protein coupled receptor MRGPRX2. This protein is expressed on tissue-resident mast cells and is involved in drug hypersensitivity reactions to a number of drugs, including fluoroquinolone antibiotics and neuromuscular blocking drugs. While an MS student at Johns Hopkins University, she co-authored two papers identifying Galectin-3 as an important player in IgE-dependent activation of basophils. More recently, she co-authored an article about synaptic localization of mGluR6. She is a member of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development training program and a leader in the Black Scientist Collective, which has built a community of Black students and supports outreach activities encouraging underserved high school students to pursue post-secondary STEM education.

Dahlia Al-Haleem.

Dahlia Al-Haleem, rural health sciences, Mercer University School of Medicine

Prior to matriculating at Mercer, Al-Haleem earned a BA in sociology from the University of Florida and a MA in aquatic environmental science and oceanography from Florida State University. Her research interests include environmental health, mental health and public health in rural and underserved populations, with a focus on post-traumatic growth (PTG), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use in rural veterans.

Elizabeth Barahona,.

Elizabeth Barahona, U.S. history, Northwestern University

Barahona specializes in Latinx, African American and U.S. history. Her dissertation will chronicle how Black and Latinx communities created grassroots organizations and coalitions to fight white supremacy in the Deep South, specifically Durham, North Carolina. A first-generation college student whose family is Mexican and Colombian, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Duke University, where she wrote the first history of Latino students at Duke that was later staged as an exhibit at the Duke library. Barahona led protests to change Duke’s policy to accept undocumented students; provide them with full, need-blind financial aid; create a Latinx center; and hire Latinx program staff. While in graduate school, she co-founded a monthly wellness workshop for graduate women of color. President of the History Graduate Student Organization, she served on the executive board of the Latinx Graduate Student Association and is a member of the Graduate Workers Union.

Abiodun Adefola Adeosun.

Elizabeth Blackman, epidemiology and environmental health, Temple University Health Sciences Center

Born and raised by immigrant parents in New York City, Blackman pursues research that focuses on heath disparities across the African diaspora. Her current work focuses on colorectal cancer screening disparities, where she takes a mixed methods approach to assess barriers to colorectal cancer screening within the heterogeneous Black population. By elucidating the nuanced barriers that exist within ethnic sub-groups of the U.S. Black population, Blackman hopes to improve colorectal cancer screening in this population via targeted interventions informed by her research.

Daniel Chavarria.

Daniel Chavarria, biomedical engineering, University of Texas at Austin

Chavarria’s research interests primarily consist of cellular biomechanics and tissue engineering. He is interested in modeling healthy and diseased tissue/organ systems for basic science studies and drug discovery. His thesis work has primarily consisted of designing and optimizing a novel high-throughput blood brain barrier in vitro model that incorporates shear stress. The model has revealed that shear incorporating assays were able to identify inhibitors of pathways known to alter blood brain barrier function in vivo that previous static models missed.

Joyline “Joy” Chepkorir.

Joyline “Joy” Chepkorir, nursing, John Hopkins University

Chepkorir’s research interests center around breast and cervical cancer prevention. She is president and founder of Mwangaza Cancer Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Kenya that focuses on education and screening of breast and cervical cancer among uninsured, low-income women. Her long-term goals include planning and implementing global health policies to improve cancer outcomes.

Joshua Cloudy.

Joshua Cloudy, media and communications, Texas Tech University

Cloudy’s research area is political communication with a focus on public opinion, partisanship and social identity. More specifically, he is interested in how partisanship influences the way individuals perceive news and how their perceptions may — or may not — contribute to hostility, polarization and other potentially antisocial feelings or behaviors. Additionally, he is interested in how social identity and participation in online political networks can influence political mobilization, particularly political mobilization that is extreme in nature.

Naniette H. Coleman.

Naniette H. Coleman, sociology, University of California, Berkeley

A UB alumna, Coleman is a PhD candidate in sociology, a Maverick-in-Residence at the Santa Fe Institute and a multi-year UC-National Lab in-Residence Graduate Fellow (Los Alamos), the first — and to date only — social scientist selected for this University of California-wide distinction. She is also an affiliate of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at Berkeley and two centers at Harvard University: Berkman Klein Center for the Internet and Society (2019-present) and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (2019-21). Her research sits at the intersection of the sociology of culture and organizations, and focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance and privacy in the U.S. context. Specifically, her work examines how organizations assess risk, make decisions and respond to data breaches and organizational compliance with state, federal and international privacy laws.

Kinyata Cooper.

Kinyata Cooper, rehabilitation science, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center

Cooper is a PhD candidate in rehabilitation science with a concentration in movement science and disorders. After graduating from Howard University with her BS in chemistry, Cooper transitioned to rehabilitation science, with research interests in rehabilitation efficacy and diagnostics to improve human performance and clinical outcomes. As a former Division I 400-meter hurdler, her current work emphasizes improving functional performance testing to determine return-to-sport after anterior cruciate ligament injury and reconstruction.

Veronika Espinoza.

Veronika Espinoza, psychology and behavioral neuroscience, University of Texas at El Paso

Espinoza’s research focuses on determining neuropharmacological age and sex differences in the brain during nicotine withdrawal. She is first author of two papers in press and has delivered a total of 19 presentations — oral or poster — at regional and national conferences. Among several other honors, she received the National Award of Excellence in Research by a Student at the National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse annual meeting. Espinoza has served as a teaching assistant in psychology, behavioral neuroscience, lab methods and statistical methods courses since 2019.

Mariela Faykoo-Martinez.

Mariela Faykoo-Martinez, behavioral neuroscience, University of Toronto

A PhD candidate in cell and systems biology, Faykoo-Martinez’s work bridges behavioral neuroendocrinology with comparative genomics, focusing on how social environment mediates the most extreme form of mammalian pubertal suppression as seen in the naked mole-rat. Through the use of genomic and epigenetic techniques, she is developing an understanding of how molecular pathways are linked across brain regions essential to both sociality and reproduction. A Massey College Junior Fellow, Faykoo-Martinez enjoys learning history and cooking new recipes in her free time.

Akil Fletcher.

Akil Fletcher, anthropology, University of California, Irvine

Fletcher studies sociocultural anthropology; his dissertation, “Gaming Blackness: An Exploration of Black Gaming Communities and Practices,” explains how online Black communities use digital platforms to form selfhood and relationships. His work is based on two years of research funded by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, a NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant and UCI’s President’s Dissertation Year Fellowship. Fletcher explores the lived realities and tactics of navigation taken on by Black players in gaming sites. Beginning with the question, “How does it feel to be a problem online?” he expands on W.E.B Du Bois’ pivotal question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” to explain the unique position of Black online gamers who find community and belonging in gaming spaces that are often read as sites of anti-Blackness. Through researching Black communities within the video games Final Fantasy XIV and League of Legends, and communication sites like Discord and Twitter, his work explores a digital Black double consciousness in which Black individuals recreate Black identities under the affordances of online gaming.

Israel Garcia-Carachure.

Israel Garcia-Carachure, behavioral neuroscience, University of Texas at El Paso

Garcia-Carachure specializes in the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders, which affect people of color disproportionately and with greater severity due to stigma and lack of care seeking, among other reasons. Currently a Society for Neuroscience Scholar Program Fellow, Garcia-Carachure has a robust publication record (10) for a doctoral student, and has delivered six oral presentations at regional and national conferences, as well as 12 first-author abstracts at national meetings.

Daniela Goya-Tocchetto.

Daniela Goya-Tocchetto, management and organizations, Duke University

Goya-Tocchetto researches political biases and the psychology of socioeconomic inequality. Her main goal is to help provide a better understanding of the cognitive and motivated processes underlying the general acceptance of rising inequalities. Her work has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals such as Political Behavior, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and Journal of Consumer Psychology, and in popular press outlets such as Behavioral Scientist and Politico. Goya-Tocchetto holds a BA and a MS in economics from UFRGS (Brazil), a MS in philosophy and public policy from the London School of Economics, and a PhD in philosophy from UFRGS (Brazil). She previously worked as an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, teaching courses in economics and political philosophy. 

Juan Hernandez.

Juan Hernandez, clinical psychology, Arizona State University

Hernandez is a member of Marisol Perez’ Body Image Research and Health Disparities (BIRHD) Lab at Arizona State, with an interest in learning more about the interplay between culture, eating and mental health among Mexican American youth. Hernandez’ clinical interests include eating disorder treatment and medical weight-affirming care that celebrates body diversity.

Nielson Sophann Hul.

Nielson Sophann Hul, linguistics, Cornell University

Hul was born in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period and escaped to the U.S. when he was very young. After high school, he joined the U.S. Army and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq as a combat medic. During his breaks in service, he graduated with a BA in English literature from UCLA and an MA in linguistics the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Hul was teaching TESOL and English composition at community colleges in California when he noticed that native Khmer-speaking students living in Long Beach were taking foreign language classes in addition to struggling with English, and many could not even read or write in their native language, Khmer. With support from Long Beach City College, Hul designed and launched a Khmer language course intended to teach reading and writing the Khmer language to heritage learners to facilitate their transfer to four-year institutions. Since then, he has been teaching students of all levels at California State University, Long Beach; the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and other institutions. His PhD in linguistics at Cornell includes a focus on the acoustic phonetics of laryngeal sounds in Khmer.

Adedoyin Inaolaji.

Adedoyin Inaolaji, electrical engineering, Florida International University

A specialist in clean energy, Inaolaji is interested in offering solutions to the challenges associated with integrating renewable energy technologies into the electric power grid. A native of Nigeria, her PhD work focuses on developing optimization and control algorithms for voltage regulation of the distribution grid.

Brittany Jones.

Brittany Jones, curriculum, learning and teacher education, Michigan State University

Jones’ current research interests include anti-racist social studies education, critical Black histories with an emphasis on Black emotionalities and emotions in social studies education, and examining how the intersections of race, power and oppression inform creation of social studies standards and curriculum materials. Prior to beginning her doctoral studies, she was a high school social studies teacher in Richmond, Virginia.

Babatunde Keshinro.

Babatunde Keshinro, industrial and systems engineering, North Carolina A&T State University

Keshinro’s research interests are in human-robot interaction, human-robot teaming and machine learning. He is also interested in applying machine learning and deep learning methods to recognize human activity and actions, and communicate these intents to robots for smooth task collaboration. Keshinro received his BS and MS degrees in industrial and production engineering from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. A data analytics enthusiast, he has a post-baccalaureate certificate in data analytics from North Carolina A&T State University. He also loves to travel and play soccer.

Yemimah King.

Yemimah King, early childhood education, Purdue University

King is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Psychology at Spelman College, where she works on an NSF-funded study that investigates factors related to the academic success of Black children. Her research focuses on children’s language and math development, and the learning contexts that are important for promoting these skills. The recipient of a Head Start Dissertation Grant, she earned her doctoral degree in human development and family studies from Purdue University.

Brittany Leslie Marshall.

Brittany Leslie Marshall, learning and instruction, Rutgers University

A PhD candidate in mathematics education, Marshall’s work focuses on K-12 mathematics teaching and learning, and math identity development, particularly among Black girls. Before Rutgers, Brittany taught middle and high school mathematics in Chicago for almost a decade. Prior to entering the field of education, she practiced architecture in both Chicago and Washington, D.C. Marshall holds a MArch from North Carolina State University and BArch from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Adam McNeil.

Adam McNeil, history, Rutgers University

McNeil’s work focuses on Black women’s lives during the Revolutionary and founding eras in the Chesapeake Bay region; specifically on how enslaved women were key contributors to the Chesapeake’s culture of rebelliousness during the Age of Revolutions, which, by implication, centers the region as a critical site of slave insurrection and revolutionary activity during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Another focus of McNeil’s scholarship is on the histories of Appalachian Mountain slavery and labor in the 18th and 19th centuries. The research has been supported by fellowships from the University of Michigan’s Clements Library, the David Center for the American Revolution at the American Philosophical Society, the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture (OI). In 2021, McNeil became the Omohundro’s inaugural OI Audio Fellow, a new fellowship meant to present “fresh histories of the American Revolution” via narrative podcast. In addition to academic writing, McNeil regularly contributes to the academic blogs Black Perspectives and The Junto, and interviews scholars on the New Books in African American Studies podcast.

Kristina Medero.

Kristina Medero, communications, Ohio State University

Experiences as a former health worker and educator in the U.S. and in South Africa shaped Medero’s understanding of health disparities as they influence, and are influenced, by different social identities and social systems. Medero’s research at Ohio State examines how the use of messages — predominantly entertainment narratives — may attenuate health disparities among stigmatized social groups (e.g., racial minorities, individuals with mental illness, etc.). Stories about stigmatized groups have been observed to improve the attitudes of the general public toward those stigmatized groups, as well as encourage people to vote for policies that will support stigmatized groups. Similarly, these stories may embolden members of stigmatized groups to seek out health services, share their personal stories and feel more confident in advocating for social support. Medero’s work aims to amplify marginalized voices through narratives to enhance access to health services that may be encumbered by negative attitudes held by the general public toward stigmatized groups, and a lack of efficacy among stigmatized groups to access health services.

Daniel Morales-Armstrong.

Daniel Morales-Armstrong, history/Africana and American studies, University of Pennsylvania

Morales-Armstrong studies emancipation and memory in 19th-century Puerto Rico, placed more broadly within Caribbean and Atlantic contexts. His research focuses on newly freed persons’ responses to the systems of forced labor that followed abolition, centering those stories that have been marginalized in the (mis)constructions of the emancipation narrative within and beyond the colony’s shores. Beyond his work as a historian, he is an educator and has coordinated study abroad programming through which Black Latinx high school students in his native New York City have studied Black Latin American history in Cuba, Peru and Puerto Rico.

Udodiri R. Okwandu.

Udodiri R. Okwandu, history, Harvard University

Okwandu is a doctoral candidate in the history of science department and Presidential Scholar at Harvard University. Her research explores the intersection of race, gender and medicine, and social and cultural constructions of health and disease. Her dissertation traces how medical understandings of maternal mental illnesses — such as postpartum depression and psychosis — have been used to rationalize the “transgressive” behavior of childbearing women from the late-19th to mid-20th century. In doing so, she demonstrates how these rationalizations served to either excuse or pathologize women in ways that mapped onto existing racial and class hierarchies. She illuminates the consequences of these discourses by examining various sites, including the courts, asylum, family planning clinic, psychoanalytic research “lab” and sterilization laws.

Termara Parker.

Termara Parker, neuroscience, Yale University

Parker studies neural mechanisms of social interaction in autistic individuals using functional near-infrared spectroscopy and eye-tracking. She has presented her research at several conferences, among them the Society for fNIRS, Society for Neuroscience, ABRCMS, SACNAS and Black in Neuro. She has authored nine publications, including five first-author publications. She has won the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, the Neuroscience Scholar Program Fellowship and the Annie Le Fellowship Award, and was named one of NIH’s 2022 Outstanding Neuroscience Scholars. Parker also is committed to teaching and mentoring future Black neuroscientists. As graduate director of the Yale Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) Diversity and Inclusion Collective (YBDIC), Parker has been instrumental in creating resources and opportunities for underrepresented minorities to build community.

Minerva Rodriguez.

Minerva Rodriguez, psychology, University of Texas at El Paso

Rodriguez’s research examines the long-term effects of fluoxetine treatment in vulnerable populations (i.e., adolescents); her dissertation will assess the impact of the vicarious defeat stress (VDS) animal model in underrepresented populations (i.e., adolescents and females). Rodriguez has contributed to five papers and has had nine presentations at regional and national conferences. Rodriquez shows great potential as a researcher in the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders, which affect people of color disproportionately and with greater severity due to stigma and lack of care seeking, among other reasons.

Aya Shhub.

Aya Shhub, special education, University of California, Riverside

Shhub’s area of research is reading fluency instruction with a focus on reading prosody development. Prior to her doctoral studies, she worked in the Inland Empire public schools as a special education teacher and IEP (individualized education plan) specialist, sat on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and worked as an applied behavioral interventionalist. Shhub was awarded the Harry Singer Endowed Fellowship and Hammill Institute on Disabilities doctoral fellowship to further investigate the relationship between word reading, fluency and reading prosody. Her dissertation is focused on understanding the reading profiles of different students; specifically, investigating reading prosody differences between typically developing students and students with autism spectrum disorder in upper elementary grades. Identifying this critical information will allow practitioners and researchers to better understand and develop instructional strategies to enhance students reading abilities.

Martez Smith.

Martez Smith, nursing and health science, University of Rochester School of Nursing

Smith, a licensed master social worker, conducts research that addresses racial, sexual and gender minority health disparities through community-driven, asset-based interventions. He currently is a member of the University of Rochester School of Nursing’s Interdisciplinary Sexual Health and HIV Research (INSHHR) Group, where he collaborates with researchers on a variety of scientific studies. In addition to conducting research, Martez works alongside a nationwide cadre of activists, organizing for social justice with the Keeping Ballroom Community Alive Network, which he co-founded in 2015.

Clifton E. Sorrell III.

Clifton E. Sorrell III, history, University of Texas at Austin

Sorrell studies slavery and the African diaspora in the Atlantic world with an emphasis on the early modern Caribbean. His dissertation project addresses the making of Black freedom practice and community in Spanish Jamaica and explores its relationship with the development of the Caribbean’s geopolitical configuration between the 16th and 17th centuries. Working between English and Spanish archives, Sorrell examines the island’s free and enslaved communities and their transition into Maroon societies to trace how they forged and (re)elaborated meanings of freedom, community and sovereignty. He also considers how these developments shaped and were shaped by the region’s political economy, the contexts of Afro-European cross-cultural encounters, and the ways these different groups understood these complicated landscapes in staking competing and overlapping claims in the early modern Caribbean.

Anapaula Themann.

Anapaula Themann, psychology, University of Texas at El Paso

Themann focuses her work on the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders, which affect people of color disproportionately and with greater severity due to stigma, lack of care seeking, and unaffordable mental health care. She has received several accolades in recent years, including the 2022 enhanced Interdisciplinary Research Training Institute on Hispanic Substance Abuse (eIRTI) Fellowship from the University of Southern California and the Outstanding Thesis Award from UTEP, as well as the National Award of Excellence for Best Poster by a New Investigator in Basic Sciences at the National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse Conference. Themann has seven publications to her credit, and has presented 17 abstracts at regional and national conferences.

Alberto Valido.

Alberto Valido, psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Valido’s research focuses on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ youth of color, and protective factors that can buffer the adverse effects of discrimination and bias-based victimization. His research examines the role of societal-level factors such as systemic inequality, racism, heterosexism and cissexism, and ways to combine individual, state- and policy-level data using integrative data analysis. To date, he has published 53 peer-reviewed articles, 13 book chapters and 31 conference presentations.

Deidra Ward.

Deidra Ward, chemical engineering, University of Texas at Austin

Ward’s doctoral research is focused on the development of polymeric nanoparticles for delivery of RNA-interference molecules to treat neurological malignancies. Prior to UT Austin, she received her BS in chemical and biomolecular engineering from Clemson University.

Waylon Wilson.

Waylon Wilson, performing and media arts, Cornell University

As a media maker and theorist, Wilson’s fusions of video game development, filmmaking, animation and interactive media consider the role of digital and analog technology to facilitate knowledge practices. A citizen of the Skarù:rę (Tuscarora) Nation, Deer clan, he strategizes these platforms to examine critical Indigenous topics and human relationships to place. His work evokes theories of game design, like critical play, to influence his own critical game development and create experiences that construct virtual simulations and environments as our extended realities. Wilson’s work intermixes film studies with video game technologies, global Indigenous topics and design to be in dialogue with Indigenous methodologies, representation in media, mapping, interactive data visualization and the digital divide. His recent work includes hybrids of 3D video games and digital filmmaking, transformations of traditional Indigenous practices to digital settings and interventions on existing media theories such as reconstructing our understanding of the western film genre.