UCSF Graduate Students Earn Prestigious Fellowships

Patricia Yollin on August 22, 2011

Karuna Meda will arrive at UCSF on August 23 to begin work on a doctorate in neuroscience. When she gets to campus, she will have a big head start: a brand-new fellowship that will help financially, of course, but also psychologically.

Karuna Meda

Karuna Meda

"It's awarded to one person. I was very surprised when I won," said Meda, 23, who is the first recipient of the Chuan Lyu Chancellor's Fellowship, a one-year award of $40,000. "It's a good thing to have before even starting the program."

Meda is among 46 recipients of 2011-2012 UCSF Graduate Division Fellowships. Another 25 students received Graduate Student Research Fellowship awards from the National Science Foundation. Here is a complete list of winners.

It all adds up to an extraordinarily talented crop of new arrivals.

"The quality of applicants and the resultant student body has increased phenomenally," said Graduate Division Dean Patricia Calarco, PhD, who is retiring October 1 after 40 years at UCSF. "Especially their drive to succeed. You have to be adventurous to succeed in science. You have to be able to ask questions other folks would think were crazy. But there are no crazy questions."

Raul Torres is another recipient of a Graduate Division fellowship. He won an award from the UCSF NIGMS Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity (IMSD) Program. He will get $29,500 annually for two years, and his student fees also will be covered.

"What's great about this is that it's something I can put on my resume," said Torres, whose goal is earning a PhD degree in the biomedical sciences program. "It will help me develop an extra edge."

He was among 10 recipients of the diversity award. "We have a very large diversity effort in the Graduate Division,” Calarco said. “We're still not doing enough in California as a majority minority state. The diversity percentage in our graduate school is about 14 percent. We would certainly like to see it higher.”

Raul Torres

Raul Torres

Torres, 27, grew up in East Texas and is first generation on his father’s side. His dad was born in Mexico and his grandparents lived there for half their lives. He received undergraduate degrees in anthropology and biology and then, as a member of the National Guard, did a year’s tour of duty in Iraq with the Army. That military service was followed by a post-baccalaureate program at the University of Chicago focusing on human genetics.

“Being in academia, you hardly ever encounter veterans, unfortunately,” Torres said. “I’m pretty unusual in that regard. It’s kind of a weird niche that I’m in. I definitely matured and experienced life outside science. So I have an even greater appreciation for science now. I came back because I missed it so much.”

Stimulating and Supportive Environment

Torres said he chose UCSF for his doctoral work, among various options, because it provides a stimulating and supportive environment. “I could just tell during my interview weekend and afterward. Members of the faculty were very responsive to my questions, very accessible.”

He is spending the summer doing a rotation at UCSF Mission Bay, working in a lab with principal investigator Ryan Hernandez. “It’s kind of cool because he is so young,” Torres said. “I was looking for someone I could talk to freely instead of worrying about fitting into their schedule.”

Torres is not sure where he wants to work after he obtains his doctorate but he is certain that he will have the brightest of futures. “There are a lot of opportunities, whether in academia or industry,” he said. “I feel like I have tons of options after I graduate.”

Meda, too, faced some tough choices when it came time to select a school. She also had interviewed at Columbia, Yale, MIT, UC San Diego and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her undergraduate degree in biology.

“I found the environment I was looking for at UCSF,” Meda said. “It’s hands-off but also gives you the support that you need. It seems like a very tight-knit community with a lot of programs.”

She was born in Boston but grew up mostly in Bangalore because her family moved back to India when she was 8. During her interview weekend at UCSF, she met most of the students who will be her classmates and was impressed with their caliber and credentials. As a result, she was especially shocked and flattered when she learned that she had won a prestigious fellowship.

“My interview weekend was laid-back and informal and conducive to interacting with people and getting to know one another. It’s not so much competitive as it is a learning experience,” said Meda, who will be rooming with one of the women she met during repeated interviews together.

Meda is one of 40 women among the 71 fellowship winners. That number would have been unimaginable to Calarco, who was a developmental biologist and professor in the Department of Anatomy, when she was starting out at UCSF.

“At the time I entered science there were few women in science,” Calarco said. “Many things were quite difficult. I’d make a suggestion in a national meeting that literally no one heard. A man would say the same thing 15 minutes later, and everyone would think it was brilliant.”

She said that raising fellowship funds is one of Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann’s top priorities and that it is especially urgent because of state cutbacks.

“UCSF has been increasingly under duress in terms of fiscal resources,” Calarco said.

Wendy Winkler, director of Graduate Student Financial Support in the UCSF Graduate Division, agreed. “It’s very expensive to go to graduate school and live in San Francisco,” she said. “I get a big kick out of the fellowships because it’s always nice to give out money.”