Meet the 2020 Graduating UAF BLaST Scholars!

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By Amy Topkok


This past May, the BLaST program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks celebrated the graduation of five BLaST Scholars. The celebration of their achievements was unusual this year due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In lieu of an annual graduation barbeque, the BLaST team created a “Virtual Graduation” consisting of a website highlighting the graduates, and a video from the team giving accolades and good thoughts. Creating the website and video were a way for the BLaST team to overcome the limitations caused by the pandemic and connect with the students in a fun, personable way that showed appreciation for their hard work and perseverance through such an unprecedented time. Below are the 2020 BLaST Scholar graduates along with notes from the graduates.

Visit the the BLaST Congratulates their Graduates for 2020 website.

View the video.

Jennie Humphrey, B.S., wildlife biology and conservation 

UAF BLaST graduate Jennie Humphrey, B.S., Wildlife          
Biology and Conservation

I graduated back in December and have been thriving in the high desert of Silver City, New Mexico during COVID Madness. I have been working as an emergency childcare provider at a Montessori school and spend most of my free time toodling on my guitar, learning how to garden in the desert, and making food with my coworkers. I’ve felt a bit removed from the scientific community since graduating, but I like to think that I’m helping to instill a sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world through my work with the kids. Pointing out plants and bugs, working in the school garden, and asking them questions about their surroundings gets us all more engaged and mindful of the subtle processes enveloping us.

In June, I will be starting a job with the Southwest Conservation Crew in Durango, Colorado. We will be taking small groups of high schoolers out on conservation projects and mentoring them in environmental stewardship, science-based observation, and emotional intelligence. I plan on living out of my car and am beyond stoked to be camping 24/7 and embracing a more minimalist lifestyle.

My biggest piece of advice to anyone and everyone who will listen is MAKE TIME TO NURTURE YOURSELF. What makes you shine? What fills you with gratitude and makes you giggle? When you’re stuck inside studying for hours on end, what do you wish you were doing instead? Do a good bit of studying and then do the thing you wish you were doing instead. School was the most challenging yet rewarding time of my life and finding a healthy balance of activities was crucial to my overall wellbeing. Also crucial to overall wellbeing is good friendship, so I encourage you to strike up conversations with your classmates! Who knows what will evolve!


Noah Khalsa, B.S., fisheries and ocean sciences: fisheries science

UAF BLaST graduate Noah Khalsa, B.S., Fisheries and       
Ocean Sciences: Fisheries Science


I am currently preparing to begin graduate studies in the fall of 2020 at the University of Maine, School of Marine Sciences in the Chen Lab. My prospective research will incorporate climate model outputs for ocean acidification and warming with population dynamics models used for American lobster fishery stock assessments in the Gulf of Maine. I will then be conducting fishery management strategy evaluations with the updated models to help guide management under future ocean change scenarios. My ultimate career goal is to work as a research ecologist at an agency focusing on fisheries research and policy, such as NOAA Fisheries.


Undergraduate research was a driving force during my time in school that shaped the trajectory of my future. I hope to inspire the next generation of scientists by supporting undergraduate involvement in research throughout my career. My advice to incoming students is to take every opportunity you can reasonably handle, establish excellent connections with faculty and students, leverage your connections whenever you can, and apply to everything you can even if you don’t think you will get it - you might surprise yourself!





Shelby McCahon, B.S., wildlife biology and conservation

UAF BLaST graduate Shelby McCahon, B.S.,          
Wildlife Biology and Conservation

Shortly after graduation, I moved down to Anchorage for the summer to work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a wildlife field technician. I am currently working on a shorebird project, where I am studying Lesser Yellowlegs migration, survival, and genetics. In July, I will be working on a small mammal project, where I will be studying collared pika demography and diet. After this summer, I intend to work in the wildlife field and explore more of my interests before pursuing my master's degree in wildlife ecology.

I hope to inspire the next generation of scientists and students by working as a wildlife biologist and science educator in the near future. I would love to one day mentor students and help them achieve their academic and professional goals, along with encouraging and supporting them to explore all of their interests.

As a wildlife biologist, I hope to contribute scientific knowledge about the effects of climate change and anthropogenic disturbances on wildlife species to the scientific community and to wildlife managers.

Some advice that I have to incoming students would be to explore your interests, both personally and professionally, build your professional network, and to take advantage of all of the wonderful opportunities that UAF has! Without getting involved in research, BLaST, and The Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society, I never would have found my passion in wildlife biology.

I would like to thank the BLaST program and all of my mentors and Research Advising and Mentoring Professionals (RAMPs) for providing me with invaluable support throughout my academic career! I certainly would not be where I am today without all of the support you have given me, and I am very grateful and appreciative for it.

Jonilee Polanco, B.S., biological sciences: cell and molecular biology

UAF BLaST graduate Jonilee Polanco, B.S.,
Biological Sciences: Cell and Molecular Biology

I’m thinking about graduate school in a plant science related field, but it could potentially switch or be paired with marine biology through cyanobacteria.

Science should be accessible to everyone, regardless of your education level or disability status. Incoming freshmen and students everywhere need to be made aware that mental illnesses, notably Major Depression, is recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and grants said individuals certain resources to aid in their success. This is something I had only been made aware of in my final year at UAF, after having to medically withdraw due to burnout and mental health concerns. Science should be communicable. We have experiments that are synthesized very elegantly so as to be understood even by children—such tactics should be attempted by scientists everywhere. Our research only makes a difference if the public supports it—we work for them after all—people don’t typically support a cause they do not (or cannot) understand because of scientific jargon. Hispanic women make up only two percent  of STEM positions in the U.S., and still earn $0.54 on a white man’s $1—the largest wage gap difference between any two racial groups—this is unacceptable; for in the words of Rupi Kaur: “Our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry.” These are the messages I carry with me always as a scientist, singer, author, and person. 

I hope to use my diverse identity and fresh perspective to shine a light on issues in the scientific community regarding the overexploitation of students, teaching rote memorization rather than critical analysis/logic, the rising mental health pandemic in academia, and the financial burden plaguing curious minds today. I am fortunate to have been born into a middle class family with the means to assist me with getting into college; however, academic institutions need to recognize the faults in their own systems—how is a student with nothing expected to pay for the price of even just a single application? Especially in this time in history, wherein we have arrived at an economic crisis to trump the Great Depression—education, as well as healthcare, can do without our insidious capitalistic society. I am grateful to BLaST for giving me my future, and recognizing the greatness in this Intelligent Queer Brown Woman.

Shelly Thao, B.S., chemistry: biochemistry, UAF BLaST graduate

UAF BLaST graduate Shelly Thao, B.S., Chemistry:

I will be working as a Dental Assistant.

I hope to inspire the next generation of scientists by letting them know that every little bit of research done helps us to understand concepts better. Each experience we have, whether science-related or not, is a valuable experience for us as a person and a scientist if we choose to continue in the sciences.

I hope to contribute to the scientific community by supporting scientific events, and advising young scientists, whether they are in high school or college. The next steps in my career are to get out of debt, and then reapply for graduate programs to continue contributing to the scientific community.

The advice I would have for incoming scientists is that there will always be people we might not get along with, and that's okay. What matters is how they handle the situation and continue taking care of themselves.







Additional BLaST Graduates, May 2020

Past Scholar: Kk’odohdaatlno Christina M. Edwin, B.A, rural development: community research and Indigenous knowledge
Past Scholar: Ronin T. Ruerup, B.S. natural resources management

Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) Participants
URE: Sabrina Bishop, magna cum laude, B.S. biological sciences: biomedical science. University Honors Scholar
URE: Samantha Haines, B.S. biological sciences: biomedical science. University Honors Scholar
Past URE: Jon D. Harwell Sr, B.S. chemistry: biochemistry
Past URE: Kaylee Ladd, magna cum laude, B.S., biological sciences: phystology
Past URE: Rowan McPherson, magna cum laude, B.S. wildlife biology and conservation
Past URE: Parker Merrifield, B.A. chemistry
Past URE: Amanda Mitchell, B.S. biological sciences
URE: Jonathan Napier, magna cum laude, B.S. fisheries and ocean sciences: fisheries science. University Honors Scholar
Past URE: Savanah R. Owen, magna cum laude, B.S. biological sciences: cell and molecular biology. University Honors Scholar
Past URE: Marcos D. Toniolo, cum laude, B.S. chemistry

Graduate Mentoring and Research Assistant (GMRA) - BLaST staff GY1-GY5
Hugh D. Leonard, Ph.D. clinical-community psychology: rural Indigenous emphasis
Carla Frare, Ph.D. biochemistry and neuroscience: neuroscience
Madison M. Kosma, M.S. fisheries
Don Larson, Ph.D. biological sciences
Jason Slats, M.S. mechanical engineering
Lisa Smith, Ph.D. biochemistry and neuroscience: biochemistry
Lauren Wild, Ph.D. fisheries

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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