CASE Summer 2021 Real Triumphs Graduates

A diverse group of men and women in background, nationality, interests and ambitions, these individuals are shining examples of what makes FIU students so special. They have accomplished extraordinary things during their time at the university — often against great odds — and have shown us what it means to be truly REAL TRIUMPHS.

Meet the CASE Summer 2021 Real Triumphs Graduates:

Alvaro Abreu — Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and Bachelor of Science in Natural and Applied Sciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Alvaro Abreu

Growing up in the remote town of San Luis, Cuba, Alvaro Abreu saw first-hand how people struggled to get adequate medical care in a town with no specialists — and where his own mother was one of the few primary care physicians available.

Inspired by his mother’s work in underserved communities, Alvaro began his higher education journey at Miami Dade College and transferred to FIU after researching other universities. At FIU, Alvaro was impressed by an institution where growth, innovation and a dynamic atmosphere could be felt as soon as he set foot on campus. Alvaro also accepted a position in the admissions department of Westchester General Hospital’s emergency room that led to further opportunities in the healthcare industry.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Alvaro helped admit patients and ensured those who needed vaccines got them. He also participated in a hospital-led study that lessened the inflammatory damage coronavirus causes to a person’s lungs. A subsequent research opportunity also allowed him to assist in an effort to train a hand-held scanner that could one day detect and diagnose skin cancer quickly.

After commencement, Alvaro will apply to medical schools, including FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. He will also return to Westchester General Hospital, after accepting a position with the clinical informatics team. There, he will handle quality control issues and ensure hospital staff follow procedures and adhere to patient privacy laws.

As a doctor, Alvaro plans to help address issues with healthcare access that affect so many around the world.

By Chrystian Tejedor

Kaytlin Alzugaray — Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society and Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Kaytlin Alzugaray

Kaytlin Alzugaray is on her way to becoming a leader in the fight against cancer — a disease that has affected multiple members of her family. 

The 21-year-old has five years of cancer research under her belt, presented at more than 20 conferences and participated in a summer research programs at Harvard Medical School.

Kaytlin started her FIU career in 2016 at FIU’s Academy for Advanced Academics, a dual-enrollment program. Shortly after completing a biology course, she was recruited for Peer Led Team Training (PLTL). She was a senior in high school helping to teach courses to college students in FIU’s Department of Biological Sciences. Later, she became a PLTL supervisor, participating in the active learning program.

At FIU, Kaytlin has excelled — earning two bachelor’s degrees and three certifications. She’s been named a prestigious Goldwater Scholar and received FIU’s Global Learning Medallion for her ovarian cancer research capstone project, as well as the Outstanding Undergraduate Scholar Award.

She credits the MARC U*STAR program for giving her the opportunity to advance her research and form professional relationships with faculty. 

Kaytlin’s also completed more than 1,530 hours in various clinical settings as an emergency medical technician and paramedic. 

Next, Kaytlin wants to earn an M.D-Ph.D. and become a physician-scientist to continue researching new cancer treatment alternatives and discover new pharmacological treatment options for cancer patients worldwide.

By Giselle M. Cancio

Nazgul Bayetova — Ph.D. in Higher Education, School of Education and Human Development

Nazgul Bayetova

Six years ago, Nazgul Bayetova was a secondary school teacher in Ekibastuz, a small town in Kazakhstan. She realized she not only needed to make a change in her country’s education system, but wanted the chance to purse her dreams of professional success.

Nazgul received the Bolashak International Scholarship in 2014, allowing this first-generation graduate to come to the United States to pursue her studies. She graduated from the University of Miami in 2017 and is now graduating with a Ph.D. in Higher Education from FIU. Nazgul is publishing a monograph based on her dissertation research.

Nazgul, who always envisioned being a mother, wife and a woman successful in her career, is now a mother to a five-year-old son and 9-month-old daughter. She’s applied for the Optional Practice Training, in hopes of obtaining authorization to work in the United States. At the same time, she’ll be collecting data and creating a data base system on universities in Kazakhstan through the Soris Foundation Grant.

For Nazgul, her dream to receive a Ph.D. once seemed impossible, but she set short term goals to help herself along the way. And she’s not done yet. One day, she hopes to be the Secretary of Education for Kazakhstan.

By Christine Calvo

Katherine Bottenhorn — Ph.D. in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Katherine Bottenhorn

Katherine Bottenhorn knew she wanted to be a scientist after her first chemistry lab experience in middle school. After graduating high school in 2011, she attended Auburn University, where she studied psychology and chemistry and took part in neuroimaging research.

During her search for graduate schools, Katherine’s research interests and geographical preferences led her to FIU. It was the perfect opportunity for Katherine to further her undergraduate research and trade the cold, muggy Alabama winters for warm, sunny Christmases in Florida close to family.

Under the mentorship of Angie Laird, Katherine conducted research in the Neuroinformatics and Brain Connectivity Lab at FIU — which uses magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brain function in the context of substance use, adolescent development and educational learning.

Katherine’s research focuses on developing new computational approaches to imaging research and applying these to gain new insight into brain function. At FIU, she worked as a Research Assistant for the National Institutes of Health-funded Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study — the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. Katherine used some of the same neuroimaging, behavioral and biological data collection methods as the ABCD Study to investigate how changes in the brains of premenopausal women are related to hormones, sleep, stress and exercise over the menstrual cycle. She is determined to expand knowledge on issues specific to women’s health.

As one of the first graduates for FIU’s Cognitive Neuroscience doctoral program, Katherine is the first in her family to earn a Ph.D. — a journey guided by strong women colleagues and mentors representing snapshots of the woman and scientist she wants to be.

After graduation, Katherine will be working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern California in sunny Los Angeles.

By Ayleen Barbel Fattal

Lazaro Fernandez — Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Lazaro Fernandez

At just 22, Lazaro Fernandez has helped conduct groundbreaking research in the field of neuroscience — and in a matter of months mastered techniques to study the brains of animals that normally take Ph.D. students years to accomplish.

As an FIU Honors College student, Lazaro took a class called the Biophysics of Neuroscience where he learned the basics on neuroscience and conducted mock research. He then got an opportunity to work in FIU Associate Professor Jorge Riera Diaz’s Neuronal Mass Dynamics Lab, where he researched how blood flows in the brain. He even developed a protocol on how to use certain drugs to study biochemical pathways in the brain.

While cells called neurons in the brain are the main focus of neuroscience research, Lazaro began examining other cells called astrocytes that are less understood. A better understanding of these cells could expand knowledge of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Lazaro first became interested in how the human brain works as a young child, when he could accompany his mother to the electroencephalography (EEG) lab where she worked. He was fascinated that she could see inside people’s brain and observe electrical activity.

Lazaro is currently applying to medical school and dreams of becoming a research physician to help further advance neuroscience and what we know of the human brain.

By Angela Nicoletti

Md Abu Hasan Howlader — Ph.D. in Chemistry, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Md Abu Hasan Howlader

Md Abu Hasan Howlader will be the first person from his remote village in Bangladesh to earn a Ph.D. While the journey has been a struggle, he’s remained determined and never allowed anything stand in the way of his educational dreams. 

Md Abu Hasan first became interested in chemistry when he saw the periodic table and was amazed that everything in the world was made up of those 118 elements. Always a good student, Md Abu Hasan studied hard and was accepted into the University of Dhaka.

In 2011, he wanted to come to the U.S. to pursue his Ph.D. studies. But he couldn’t afford to cover the travel and relocation expenses. That is when he began teaching at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, saving money for the next five years. Then, in 2016, he was awarded the FIU Presidential Fellowship, and moved to Miami.

Md Abu Hasan has conducted innovative, groundbreaking research that uses the building blocks of DNA to develop new anticancer and antiviral medications. One of these new treatments is focused on slowing down the spread of COVID-19. He’s also collaborated with the FIU College of Medicine to develop a new arsenic-based antibiotic. To date, he’s published 18 scientific articles in prestigious academic journals and has been awarded two patents.  

This fall, Md Abu Hasan will take a position as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University.

By Angela Nicoletti

Blaire Kleiman — Master of Science in Environmental Studies, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Blaire Kleiman

Blaire Kleiman’s research often gets down in the weeds — and it’s for a good reason.

Her work is focused on the role weeds play in attracting important insects to plants, especially edible plants like fruit trees. 

Working under the guidance of FIU professors Suzanne Koptur and Krishnaswamy Jayachandran, Blaire found weeds actually benefit mango trees. She compared mango trees at Lyons Farms in Homestead — those that had weeds growing around them and those that did not. Trees with weeds attracted more pollinators like bees, butterflies and flies, which in turn helped the trees produce more fruit.

These findings are critical to helping farmers save time and money, and reduce the use of chemical pesticides. To date, she’s had two papers published in scientific journals.

In addition to pursuing her own studies, Blaire also worked in FIU research assistant professor Cara Rockwell’s Plants and People Lab. Blaire is also interested in sharing her passion for plants. She’s a member of FIU’s Garden Club and the Beekeeping Club.

Invited to pursue her doctoral studies at other universities, Blaire has decided to stay at FIU. She received the prestigious FIU Presidential Fellowship and will pursue her Ph.D. in the fall and hopes to study how climate change will impact agriculture.

By Angela Nicoletti

Cristina Orozco — Bachelor of Science in Biological Studies, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Cristina Orozco

Cristina Orozco wants to dedicate her life to helping others. After all, it was a lesson she learned from her mother, who would go out of her way to help people in need.

As part of an advanced placement capstone project in high school, Cristina worked with a team at what would become Baptist Hospital’s Miami Cancer Institute – researching complementary and alternative treatment for breast cancer patients. An aspiring pre-medical student at FIU, she co-founded the FIU Friends of Médecins Sans Frontières Student Chapter with her longtime boyfriend, Alexander Hanks in 2019.

Not even the COVID-19 pandemic could get in Cristina’s way. In 2020, she volunteered to help indigent and homeless people at Camillus House experiencing COVID symptoms to get tested and treated. She was also selected by mentor Eric Feldman as an FIU in DC Hamilton Scholar and she developed a literature review on Black and Latino communities for an Us Against Alzheimer’s social media campaign. Another summer opportunity funded by the National Institutes of Health led Cristina to research financial toxicity or how out of pocket costs for cancer treatment can cause financial problems for patients.

In addition to Feldman, Cristina counts Master’s of Public Health Program Director Alok Deoraj and the team at the Peer-Led Team Learning office as mentors.

After commencement, Cristina plans to pursue a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Chicago. Whether she becomes a doctor or a researcher is something she has yet to figure out. She just knows she’s going to help address social inequalities.

By Chrystian Tejedor

Ana Lucia Rodriguez — Ph.D. in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Ana Lucia Rodriguez

Ana Lucia Rodriguez de la Rosa always knew she wanted to serve others and make a difference.

Obtaining two master’s degrees, one in Development and Culture and the other in Sociology prior to joining FIU, Ana Lucia knew she wanted to continue her education. In 2014, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and had to undergo several surgeries. But this did not deter her. She eventually came to FIU to begin pursuing her Ph.D. in psychology.  

Under the mentorship of Dionne Stephens, Ana Lucia conducted research on how social networks and social interactions influence, and are influenced by, mental health and cultural dynamics. She’s published three articles in academic journals and presented her work at 13 conferences.

As a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Global Health Equity pre-doctoral fellow, Ana Lucia had the opportunity to live and conduct research in a rural Afro-Colombian village in Colombia and examined how adolescents experienced violence in their community, with friends and in intimate relationships. Her work received the FIU Provost Award for Student Engagement.

Ana Lucia also received the Young Scholar Researcher Bridge Grant from the Society of Complex Systems, as well as an American Psychological Association Research Award.

This fall, Ana Lucia will begin her post-doctoral research at Yale University. She hopes to create academic spaces where diversity is valued, especially for other Latinas, people with disabilities, and historically underrepresented groups. 

By Nathalie Medina

Christian Sanchez ­­­— Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and Bachelor of Arts in Natural and Applied Sciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Christian Sanchez

Christian Sanchez was only 10 when he and his family left Havana, Cuba for Naples, Florida. His search for a better future was difficult socially, economically and personally, but he never lost sight of his one goal: to always make his family proud.

Christian first became interested in biology during high school, counting down the days until he could attend college and conduct research in a lab. As a first-generation college student, Christian set his sights exclusively on FIU — a top tier research university recognized as a Hispanic-serving institution.

He worked with his mentor Phillip Stoddard, an FIU Professor of Biological Sciences, assisting with experiments on insecticide resistance, focusing on Aedes aegypti mosquitos that transmit diseases like Malaria, yellow fever, Zika and more.

As a part of the Advanced Research and Creativity in Honors (ARCH) in the FIU Honors College, Christian found older mosquito eggs are more susceptible to insecticides. Today, he’s still conducting insecticide resistance experiments and hopes to publish his work soon.

In addition, Christian is co-president of the Pre-Med American Medical Student Association (AMSA) at FIU. He also founded the Undergraduate Mentorship Match Program (UMMP) for premedical students to receive guidance from upperclassmen who have already been through the undergraduate journey.

Next, Christian plans to continue his research at FIU and is applying to medical school with the hope of conducting research that could save lives.

By Angela Nicoletti