College of Education welcomes three Presidential Graduate Research Fellows

Published: July 24, 2023

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Auburn’s College of Education will welcome three Presidential Graduate Research Fellows this fall. Moriah Wallace will begin a doctoral program in mathematics education in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching while Marina Meyer Vega and Keven Santamaria-Guzmán will pursue doctoral degrees in the School of Kinesiology.

Presidential Graduate Research Fellowships are awarded for three years and are part of Auburn’s initiative to enhance the university’s research and scholarly profile by attracting outstanding and highly qualified students for doctoral studies.

“We are thrilled to welcome these exceptional students and researchers to the College of Education,” said Jeffrey T. Fairbrother, dean of the College of Education and Wayne T. Smith Distinguished Professor. “The Presidential Graduate Research Fellowship program makes it possible for us to recruit students like Moriah, Marina and Keven. They have proven track records in their fields and will contribute greatly to the mission of our college, particularly in research endeavors.”

As a student at Spelman College, Wallace attended a presentation by an Auburn College of Education professor and was inspired to invest in children by becoming an educator. Now, as a doctoral candidate and an African American woman entering a STEM field, Wallace’s research will focus on recognizing the value of and making significant contributions to underrepresented populations.

“Through this doctoral program, I will advocate for and contribute valuable research to reach underrepresented students. I will also create schools where students excel in pedagogy, curriculum, and support without limitations,” she said. “I want to inspire not only women, black women, and minorities, but anyone who values the future of education.”

Wallace will work under the supervision of Marilyn Strutchens, the Emily R. and Gerald S. Leischuck Endowed Professor for Critical Needs in Education and Mildred Cheshire Fraley Distinguished Professor in mathematics education. Strutchens believes Wallace’s prior research and teaching experiences will aid the program in graduating larger numbers of well-prepared teachers who have a broader understanding of the needs of students from different cultural backgrounds and experiences.

“Her previous experiences and goals will enable her to contribute to the growth of our students’ knowledge about working with youth who have behavior problems and may also belong to communities that have been minoritized and have financial barriers,” Strutchens said. “She can help students in our program to understand teaching strategies that motivate all students.”

Meyer Vega completed her physical therapy degree in Mexico, in a rigorous six-year program from which she graduated with honors. She also holds a post-graduate board certification in sports medicine from Spain.

Following her graduation in 2020, she set up and ran a private practice in Mexico City. Her experience in working with patients as a healthcare provider during the COVID-19 pandemic made her curious about integrating research and neuroscience into the rehabilitation process, in addition to the structural and musculoskeletal aspects.

“The seeds of my fascination to study physical therapy were sown due to my desire to create a change that could go beyond the boundaries of my own community,” Meyer Vega said. “This experience will enable me to grow as an academic, a clinician and most importantly as a human being, thus having significant impact on medical education and research and advancing clinical healthcare services in my country.”

Her long-term goal is to become a leading clinical researcher, and she is interested in Auburn’s Kinesiology Ph.D. program due to the quality laboratories and technology available and because the university strongly promotes neuroscientific research. In addition, she values the School of Kinesiology’s leadership in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education.

Meyer Vega will be mentored by Harsimran Baweja, director of Physical Therapy, and will be the first graduate student helping him set up his Clinical Translational Neuroscience laboratory as the school builds its Doctorate of Physical Therapy program.

“I believe Marina will learn a lot and make very valuable contributions to the work being done in my lab,” Baweja said. “She’ll be doing work on understanding the role of cognition and stress in balance and fall-risk and automobile driving across high-stress tactical occupations and in neurological diseases.”

Santamaria-Guzmàn has focused his career on locomotor capacity in older adults, and how it affects quality of life. He earned both an undergraduate and master’s degree from the University of Costa Rica, where he grew up in the rural town of Piedades Sur with seven siblings.

Following his graduation, Guzmàn accepted a faculty position at the university and began coordinating a program that focuses on physical and academic activities for older adults. Because of this work, he has a strong desire to utilize research methods, laboratory techniques, and technologies in order to continue to contribute to the health, functional independence and quality of life in older adults.

“This fellowship will allow me to grow as an academic and as a human being, and this, in turn, will allow this experience to have a positive impact on research activities in my country, to advance science and make a positive contribution to the health of society,” Guzmàn said.

His ultimate goal is to conduct and apply scientific research in the field of biomechanics and establish a research laboratory in the area of human movement science at the University of Costa Rica, Western Branch. While at Auburn, he will be mentored by Jaimie Roper, associate professor and director of the Locomotor and Movement Control Lab in the School of Kinesiology.

“Keven’s strongest abilities and true passion lie at the crossroads of aging and using exercise as medicine — targeting functional independence, mobility and preventing falls in older adults,” Roper said. “His faculty experience, research interests, education and experiences with older adults make him uniquely qualified to significantly and immediately contribute to my research program.”

Submitted by: MaryKate Hughes