UTEP BUILDing SCHOLARS Graduates Offer Special Thanks to Their Community

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Contact Info: jpgarza@utep.edu

By John Garza 

BUILDing SCHOLARS of the University of Texas at El Paso celebrated the graduation of six of its fellows this past academic year. The graduates collectively received multiple awards for their academic achievements and research efforts, which spanned an array of fields across the biomedical sciences. As they prepared for the next big step in their careers, some of the new alumni shared their gratitude for their support from BUILD, as well as from their mentors and families. 

Aparna Mangadu

Aparna Mangadu majored in environmental science with a concentration in biology and received multiple honors and distinctions. In addition to winning awards for her presentations, she was selected to present at the annual Science on the Hill event to a national audience this spring. 

She conducted research under the mentorship of Mingna Zhuang, PhD, creating a plant species checklist using species distribution models for the local Castner Range near El Paso, Texas. Mangadu spoke highly of her mentor. 

“Dr. Zhuang has been such a great support these past three years and has been the best mentor I could have had as an undergraduate researcher,” Mangadu said. “Working on my independent research project in the UTEP Biodiversity Collections shaped me into a strong researcher and presenter.”

She also thanked Sara Grineski, PhD, her summer research mentor at the University of Utah. 

Aparna Mangadu & her mother Thenral Mangadu, Ph.D. stand together warmly embracing each other at a graduation event. There are blue and orange balloons and a sign with text “BUILDing Scholars The University of Texas at El Paso” behind them.
Aparna Mangadu & her mother Thenral Mangadu, Ph.D.


“Through the projects that I worked on under her mentorship, I improved my mapping and writing skills and was able to publish as an undergrad,” Mangadu said.

Mangadu received a fellowship to attend graduate school at the Ohio State University School of Public Health this fall. 

When asked what advice she’d give to her peers and fellow undergraduate researchers, Mangadu reiterated words of wisdom from her mother.

“Growing up, my mother always used to tell me, ‘Apply for everything that you have even the slightest interest in. Once you get accepted, then you can decide whether to take the opportunity or not,’”  Mangadu said.

“I think these words of advice are especially applicable as a woman in science. Often, women in competitive fields will doubt their abilities and see themselves as underqualified and thus not apply for higher positions. Getting out of that mindset was definitely a struggle, but the support given to me in my undergraduate years from mentors, professors, and family made it possible.”

Samantha Sakells

Samantha Sakells graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Cellular and Molecular Biochemistry with a minor in psychology, and conducted research on proteins implicated in prostate cancer, under the mentorship of Marc B. Cox, PhD. She plans to attend the University of Texas Southwestern (UT Southwestern), where she will attend the doctoral Basic Biomedical Sciences program. She will begin her first rotation this fall in the molecular microbiology department, under the mentorship of David Hendrixson, PhD.

 Samantha Sakells with mentor Marc B. Cox, Ph.D. smiling and posing for a photo.
Samantha Sakells with mentor Marc B. Cox, Ph.D.


In reflecting on her achievements, Sakells thanked her mentors Cox and Manuel Llano, PhD, as well as her summer research mentor at UT Southwestern, Sebastian Winter, PhD. 

“I am especially thankful for all their support and guidance. I would not be nearly as successful without their help,” she said.

Rebekah Hightower

Rebekah Hightower majored in biological sciences and completed a thesis titled, “Characterized Brain Dysfunction Resulting from Francisella Tularensis Infection” with research mentor Charles Spencer, PhD. She is continuing in Spencer’s lab through the summer, working to complete a manuscript. In the fall, she will attend UT Southwestern to obtain a master’s degree in clinical nutrition before pursuing a PhD. 

In addition to thanking Spencer, Hightower recognized her secondary mentor, Anahis Tena-Martinetti. 

Rebekah Hightower standing proudly in front of her research poster titled: “Central Nervous Tissue Damage and Impacted Blood Brain Barrier Permeability Following Francisella tularensis Infection”
Rebekah Hightower


“She was there for me as we went through hours and hours of troubleshooting and learning new approaches to the project,” Hightower said. “Without her to guide me through everything we’ve done, I would not have made nearly as much progress as I did. I appreciate her encouragement for me to handle things on my own and learn through my mistakes. I value all her advice and help in preparing for graduate school.”

Hightower offered parting advice for her peers just entering research. 

“I would encourage them to stay motivated and always keep a passion for learning,” she said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to make progress, but all the efforts you put into it pay off in the end. I also encourage them to find a good mentor whom they feel comfortable with — a good lab environment is key for growth.”

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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