NSF Graduate Research Fellow Award winner - Connie Rojas

Connie Rojas

Connie Rojas is a doctoral candidate pursuing a dual degree in zoology and ecology, evolutionary biology, and behavior, in the College of Natural Science.  Rojas said that in high school she wanted to learn everything there was to know about the biodiversity on this planet.  

“I grew up in a small rural town in Oaxaca, Mexico, a place that was far behind the United States in infrastructure, healthcare, and technology, but nevertheless, rich in culture and biodiversity,” Rojas said.  “I remember spending much of my time observing tadpoles develop in our water tank, or geckos scurrying up the walls of my home.  I could not have known it then, but my fascination with science and appreciation of the local flora and fauna, would develop into a passion that would shape the rest of my life.”  

Rojas is a second-year PhD student in Dr. Kay Holekamp’s Behavioral Ecology laboratory, which has been conducting comprehensive research on spotted hyenas since 1988.  For her research, she plans on using field behavioral data, next generation sequencing technologies, and computation tools to study the stability, structure, and function of the gut microbiome of wild spotted hyenas inhabiting the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.  

“While I was an undergraduate student, I had conducted similar research studying the bacterial assemblages of stratified lakes and learned of pertinent lab techniques,” Rojas said.  “I expressed interest to my Ph.D adviser, Dr. Holekamp, in studying the symbiotic microbial communities and chemical communication of hyenas, and she put me in contact with Dr. Kevin Theis, an alum of the hyena lab whose dissertation was on the scent-marking and microbe-mediated chemical communication, and is now an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University.  I was fascinated by the current research being conducted in microbial ecology, but also knew there were a lot of unknowns, especially in studying the potential impacts of microbes on host behavior, so I decided to pursue this research!” 

Rojas said she hopes her research teaches us more about animal behavior, microbial ecology, and motivates more scientists to study animal behavior in conjunction with microbes.  

“My career goal is to become a tenure-track professor at a research-intensive university,” Rojas said.  “Apart from conducting research and teaching, a considerable amount of my time and effort will be devoted to empowering the Latino community, mentoring undergraduate students, and increasing retention of underrepresented groups in STEM.  I am the first in my family to graduate from college and receive a bachelor’s degree, and will be the first in my extended family to receive a PhD.  Although many Latino undergraduates enter college interested in majoring in STEM fields, few end up pursuing careers in this field.  Inclusive mentoring and diversifying the nation’s faculty are key ways to address this issue, and I plan to do both.  As a first-generation student form a disadvantaged background, I understand the importance of mentoring.  My teachers and professors have served as my biggest supporters and mentors, and I would like to provide the same support to younger students.”

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award consists of a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees.  Rojas said she plans to use this award to fund her tuition, dissertation research, personal expenses, and travel to her adviser’s field site in Kenya. 

“I am ecstatic to have received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and that my hard work and sacrifices have paid off,” Rojas said.  “I feel that this has not been the product of just excelling in graduate school, research, or even college.  This has been the result of working tirelessly for my dreams and goals since my family moved from Oaxaca to Los Angeles over a decade ago.  This award means that NSF sees me as a promising scientist and leader, and reaffirms that my research is important and interesting.”