An enduring commencement tradition continues Dec. 14 as UNLV president honors five outstanding students who exemplify the academic, research, and community impact of the graduating class.
For the first time since 2019, UNLV graduates will again cross the familiar Thomas & Mack stage during commencement. Pandemic restrictions pushed commencement virtual in 2020, and in May the class gathered outdoors for the first time in decades at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Now back at the Mack, the Class of 2021’s winter graduates have plenty to celebrate. They’ve endured numerous disruptions to course delivery, research efforts, internships, and almost every other aspect of life over the past two years. Yet they persisted.
December’s UNLV graduating class is expected to be about 4% larger than last year, with students coming from 37 states and 45 foreign countries. Many are the first in their family to graduate from college, and well over half – 64% – are from ethnically diverse backgrounds. This winter’s class ranges in age from 15 to 67, with an average age of 27. Since 1964, UNLV has awarded more than 157,000 degrees.
An enduring UNLV commencement tradition that dates back decades is for the president to honor a select group of outstanding graduates who exemplify the academic, research, and community impact of the graduating class.
The latest group of Outstanding UNLV Graduates includes an undergraduate physicist who’s already contributed to achieving the “holy grail” of energy efficiency; a sustainability superstar who’s making a marked impact on campus and in Las Vegas’ largest industry; a public health hero and researcher who’s exploring how COVID-19 behaves and helped lead the university’s award-winning contact tracing team; a first-gen student and scientist making waves in the field of neurogenetics who’s on a path to become a physician-scientist; and a service-focused student advocate whose commitment to her peers has paved a path for many to succeed and graduate.
B.S in cell and molecular biology; B.A. in psychology; Minor in neuroscience (Honors)
Simply juggling a full course load as a college student can be tiring. Yet somehow Aaron Cheng manages to make graduating as an Honors College student with dual bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and psychology, a minor in neuroscience, a 3.83 GPA, and a smorgasbord of research and volunteer credits seem easy. And the first-generation college student did it while caring for an ailing parent and guiding aspiring high school and undergraduate researchers along the way.
In just three and a half years, Aaron has become the “face’ of UNLV’s Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), leading lab tours for incoming freshmen, answering questions and forging connections between undergraduate researchers and the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, and creating a mentorship program for high school students interested in healthcare-related university research. As the founding director of the Neuroscience Undergraduate Research Organization, Aaron spearheaded workshops and roundtables that were instrumental in courting and creating a network of hundreds of young scientists.
Through his work in the Neurogenetics and Precision Medicine lab, which he joined at the age of 17, Aaron has explored rare neurodevelopmental disorders. When COVID-19 shutdowns hindered research on campus, Aaron forged ahead with a study on the psychological effect of microaggressions against Asian Americans during the pandemic. His peer-reviewed paper was published in the inaugural issue of UNLV’s Spectra Undergraduate Research Journal, of which Aaron serves as an associate editor. He has two more articles underway, and has contributed to 10 published abstracts.
Aaron, winner of a host of academic and research awards, has also taken his talents on the road. He has presented at nine academic conferences regionally and nationally and, last spring, was among just 15 students selected nationally for a competitive four-day Stanford School of Medicine training program. Closer to home, Aaron volunteers with University Medical Center and the Medical Reserve Corps, for which he is stationed at the local health district to support COVID-19 testing registration and distribution in elderly and homeless communities. Aaron also connects local hospitals and doctors with the Make-A-Wish Foundation in his capacity as a medical outreach ambassador.
His next stop? A dual M.D.-Ph.D. program where he can continue his research in developmental genetics while training to become a physician-scientist.
B.S. in Hospitality Management; minor in Anthropology
Outstanding undergraduate Katie Derr’s work to shrink the hospitality industry’s environmental footprint has left a big impact on UNLV’s campus and across the Las Vegas Strip.
Katie, an honors student who graduates with a bachelor’s in Hospitality Management, a minor in Anthropology, and an impressive 3.82 GPA, helped establish Rebel Grounds Coffee, a popular campus coffee shop in Hospitality Hall. As a manager, Katie established the shop’s sustainability focus, sourced eco-friendly products, and shaped community outreach and charitable programs, including a plan for proceeds from Rebel Grounds to support student scholarships.
Off-campus, Katie partners with casino event planners and sustainability teams to create and track zero-waste conventions and events, and she’s worked with the hospitality industry to broaden casino donation programs and divert more than 200,000 pounds of discarded items from local landfills. Additionally, she’s employed with RENUoil of America as its sustainability and marketing coordinator, where she helps manage and implement recycling programs for more than 20 casinos on and around the Las Vegas Strip.
Katie’s drive to enhance sustainability concepts and overall eco-friendly cuisine was also on display with her participation on UNLV’s award-winning 2017 Solar Decathlon team. The interdisciplinary contest sponsored by the Department of Energy draws students worldwide to conceptualize and build a zero-energy home. UNLV’s entry, Sinatra Living, finished first overall for innovation.
When she’s not engaging in sustainability work on campus or in the community, Katie volunteers for numerous local organizations, including Michael’s Angel Paws, which trains and connects service dogs with local residents in need. Through Michael’s Angel Paws, Katie trained her own service dog, Stitch.
In 2019, Katie was honored by the sorority Sigma Kappa with a national “35 Under 35” award for her environmental and volunteer work. Next up for Katie is Harvard, where she’ll soon begin a master’s program in sustainability with plans to return to Las Vegas to broaden and strengthen corporate sustainability efforts in integrated resorts.
B.A. in History
At UNLV, students are never alone in their pursuit of a higher education degree, and it’s because of people like Natalie Gutierrez.
It was happenstance when Natalie stopped by the Intersection on campus for help navigating an internship requirement and found a solution to the challenge she was facing. She could fulfill her course requirement by interning at the university’s multicultural resource center — but it soon became more than an internship.
She was quickly promoted to peer mentor, then lead peer mentor, and finally as the student peer mentor coordinator, providing access and opportunities to fellow students seeking to fulfill their academic goals.
In those roles, Natalie created educational materials, orientation presentations, and enhanced the Intersection’s marketing strategy. Then COVID-19 hit, but Natalie remained steadfast in her commitment to serving the mentors she supervised, regularly providing them with the latest updates.
Throughout her time at UNLV, Natalie never shied away from a challenge or an opportunity, said her nominator. That was most apparent when she was nominated to the Minority Serving Institution Student Task Force. As part of her service, she developed the “Back on Track” series to help students facing academic probation.
While her involvement in these various roles grew over time, her own academic achievements never wavered. She graduates this December with a bachelor’s in history and a strong 3.6 GPA.
“Natalie is a true asset to UNLV,” said her nominator. “She is the kind of student we all hope to have in our classes, the kind of student we hope to see graduate, the kind of student whose family becomes an extension of our office.”
Master of Public Health
Kristina Mihajlovski already had a resume that rivaled longtime leaders in her field. As a medical student in Serbia, she organized global projects to address underprivileged populations, refugee camps, disaster risk management, and infectious disease prevention as part of her leadership duties with an international student health organization. As a licensed physician, she helped drive campaigns that changed Serbian public health laws, including one surrounding antimicrobial resistance.
That drive continued at UNLV, where Kristina — who graduates today with a 4.0 GPA and a master’s degree in Public Health — is known for several firsts.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Las Vegas, Kristina spearheaded what’s believed to be the first study of coronavirus surface contamination in the international travel destination’s public areas. Furthering her efforts to understand the virus and protect residents and visitors alike, she was among the first founding volunteers who stepped up to train and manage over 250 School of Public Health student contact tracers who investigated more than 43,000 cases of COVID — one of every six in Southern Nevada. The team was honored as Program of the Year by the Nevada Public Health Association.
That’s not all. In her free time, Kristina interned with the Southern Nevada Health District researching congenital syphilis — a major county and statewide issue — and helped with COVID-19 testing kit prep and a back-to-school immunization project for 7,000 local school children. The tireless community volunteer also spearheaded initiatives with the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth and UNLV’s Public Health Student Association; spread messages of mental wellness and social well-being via Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation; organized health seminars for the Nevada Public Health Association; and joined the Medical Reserve Corps Volunteers, a national group focused on community safety during public disaster emergencies.
Kristina’s efforts earned her the School of Public Health’s Public and Community Health Benefit Scholarship, a Challenge Coin from the International Association of Emergency Managers, and induction into the Delta Omega Public Health Honor Society. With an eye on a career in infectious disease prevention and control, nominators called her an “outstanding role model” who “puts service to others above everything else.”
B.S. in Physics (Honors)
As UNLV researchers continue to build upon their groundbreaking discovery last year of a room-temperature superconductor, one outstanding graduate has had a front row seat to the action.
Faraz Mostafaeipour, graduating with a bachelor’s in physics, has focused his research and honor’s thesis on implementing ideas around the behavior of materials under high pressure — a core feature of the work that’s happening in the Nevada Extreme Conditions Lab on campus to make progress on room temperature superconductivity, the “holy grail” of energy efficiency.
Room-temperature superconductivity could one day change the way we power everything from handheld technology to the energy grid itself by allowing current to flow through a closed loop forever, and Faraz hopes to be part of the team that inches this possibility closer to reality. Upon graduation, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.
A scientific topic like superconductivity can be daunting to understand. But he used the concept as a way to encourage local elementary, middle, and high school students to pursue STEM degrees by hosting workshops, science demonstrations, and lab tours.
As a senator for student government, Faraz also helped to draft a series of bills legislating an annual $5,000 scholarship fund for STEM students, and implemented amendments to remove limitations on DACA students’ participation in student government, and on their ability to receive funding for STEM-related projects.
In the honors college, Faraz served as a Bennett honors mentor and as secretary for the Honors Student Council. His commitment to service also reached into the community where he served as a medical scribe for the Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada.
He accomplished all of this – along with achieving minors in biological sciences and mathematics – while earning a 3.95 GPA.
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