WARNING: This article contains information regarding sexual assault that may be sensitive to some readers.
Four outstanding graduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds have defied the odds and overcome adversity to pursue their educational dreams at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
The four incoming Scripps doctoral students, Kenisha Shipley, Garfield Kwan, Sara Rivera, and Osinachi Ajoku, are recipients of the San Diego Fellowship, a UC San Diego-funded program designed to increase campus diversity. Each year, this fellowship supports academically qualified students who have overcome social, economic, or educational hardships, as well as students who have demonstrated a commitment to diversity or increasing educational access for underrepresented students.
Each department within UC San Diego may nominate up to six newly admitted students per year for the San Diego Fellowship, and 2014 marks a record year for Scripps Oceanography, with four out of their six nominated students receiving the highly competitive awards.
San Diego Fellowship recipients enrolled in a PhD program receive four-year awards with stipends of $18,000 and full payment of tuition and fees. With financial obligations at bay, Shipley, Kwan, Rivera, and Ajoku can fully focus on what matters most: receiving a world-class education.
San Diego native Kenisha Shipley’s passion for science and the environment led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from San Diego State University and a master’s degree in environmental science from California State University, Los Angeles.
While researching doctoral programs, Shipley came across volcano research conducted by Scripps professor and geochemist Dave Hilton at various locations around the world, including Africa, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Iceland. The opportunity to travel to exotic places conducting geochemical research for Scripps seemed like a dream come true.
“I saw this program and all it had to offer and knew this was a great fit,” said Shipley, now a student in the geosciences program at Scripps, where Hilton is her research advisor.
Coming from a biracial family (her father is African-American and her mother is white), Shipley knows firsthand the societal struggle facing minority students.
“I want to be an inspiration for other female minorities and possibly bring them into the male-dominated science field,” said Shipley, who is considering a career as a professor so she can empower students with the knowledge that “as a minority, you can do research and have a fulfilling career that’s outside of the box.”
Chinese immigrant Garfield Kwan sees the San Diego Fellowship as a blessing and an opportunity for a better life. Born in Hong Kong, Kwan immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was seven years old.
A curiosity for science led Kwan to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the environmental science program at Scripps. As an undergraduate student, Kwan took a job as a student worker in the lab of Scripps marine biologist Stuart Sandin to help cover college tuition fees.
In the Sandin Lab Kwan became enamored with ocean science, thus he jumped on the opportunity to switch majors when Scripps launched a new marine biology undergraduate major in the fall of 2012. Kwan was among the first group of students to graduate from UC San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in marine biology.
Now a newly admitted student in the marine biology doctoral program at Scripps, Kwan is researching ocean acidification’s effect on fish, under the mentorship of Scripps marine biologist and Assistant Professor Martín Tresguerres.
With a heart for diversity and serving communities in need, Kwan’s ultimate goal is to be a college professor, a dream that can now come to fruition with a PhD from Scripps.
“Without a fellowship, I couldn’t have come here,” said Kwan. “It’s a blessing to be learning again.”
In addition to his academic achievements, Kwan has been involved in a number of outreach projects targeting diverse communities, including the City Heights Outreach Ministry Program (CHOMP), a tutoring program he founded through the Chinese Evangelical Church of San Diego. CHOMP focuses on tutoring Karen refugees from Myanmar (Burma), with students ranging from kindergarten to adult.
The Karen people are an ethnic minority in Myanmar and were exiled from their country due to armed conflicts. Many Karen refugees have settled in City Heights, a diverse and low-income community in San Diego. As many Karen refugees have little to no English background, CHOMP provides a ray of hope for a brighter future.
“Being an immigrant myself and seeing the struggle made me want to help,” said Kwan, who frequently uses science examples and illustrations to pique the interest of students who are having trouble learning the English language.
This combination of science and creativity led to the development of Squidtoons, an educational website illustrating ocean science using fun, kid-friendly comics. Kwan serves as the creative director and mastermind behind the site, which he calls his “passion project.” He and a small team of designers have worked closely with Scripps scientists for Squidtoons content and they hope to expand the site soon.
Two of the four Scripps San Diego Fellowship recipients also received the Competitive Edge Fellowship, a transitional summer research program designed to give incoming graduate students a jump-start on their research and tools to succeed in their respective graduate programs.
During the eight-week Competitive Edge program, funded by the Office of Graduate Studies at UC San Diego, fellows conduct research projects under the mentorship of a faculty member from their field. Students further acclimate to the university environment through participation in weekly readiness workshops, which cover topics such as public speaking, ethics in research, stress management, and more.
Sara Rivera, one of the double fellowship recipients, is excited to begin her graduate studies at Scripps, as she noted, “I always wanted to be here."
Originally from Southfield, a small suburb of Detroit, Rivera has always been drawn to the water. She fondly remembers swimming in Lake Michigan as a child and conducting science experiments on her free time.
Rivera’s love for science led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree from University of Michigan in biochemistry and geological sciences with a specialization in oceanography. No stranger to hard work, Rivera worked four jobs and taught a first-year portfolio course to help pay tuition fees as an undergraduate.
Despite her positive attitude and hardworking spirit, Rivera’s college dreams were nearly destroyed after she was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance on campus. Devastated by the experience, she dropped classes and thought about quitting school.
Ongoing support from her family and professors helped Rivera find the courage not only to finish school, but also to speak out about her experience.
“One in three women in college are sexually assaulted, often by people they know or are close with,” said Rivera. “I’m open about my assault because my story might help other victims come forward and report such incidents.”
Now at Scripps, Rivera is studying how specific marine bacteria interact with seawater, and how that relates to climate change. She got a head start on this research through the Competitive Edge program, where she worked in a lab under Scripps Associate Professor Lihini Aluwihare—a mentor whom Rivera describes as “brilliant and fantastic.”
“The San Diego Fellowship gives me more flexibility with my lab work, and the Competitive Edge award has given me confidence,” said Rivera. A true lover of the water, Rivera recently learned how to surf, and she’s looking forward to more enriching experiences at Scripps in the future.
Double fellowship recipient Osinachi Ajoku is also looking forward to a bright future at Scripps. Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Ajoku was just a young boy when his father left the family behind, leaving his mother to care for five children all by herself.
“I didn’t want to be a burden on my mom and I wanted to make her proud,” said Ajoku, who credits his mother, now a registered nurse, as his greatest inspiration.
Ajoku’s mother immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1982 in search of more freedom and better job opportunities. Seeing the struggle that she went through fueled Ajoku’s motivation to achieve success through higher education.
His fascination with the sky, clouds, rain, and atmospheric science led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in geology from Cal State Dominguez Hills and a master’s degree in geoscience from UC Riverside (UCR).
Ajoku enjoys the opportunity to give back to the community and to help youngsters—many from underserved communities—cultivate an interest in science. As a student at UCR, Ajoku participated in the Geoscience Education Outreach Program (GEOP), a community outreach effort led by graduate students in UCR’s Earth Sciences department.
Through GEOP, Ajoku visited schools in the Riverside community and taught young students about earth and atmospheric science through hands-on activities and presentations. He also participated in UCR’s TRiO program, which gets high school students involved in science and prepares them for college.
Over the summer, Ajoku conducted research on atmospheric rivers (narrow corridors of strong water vapor transport that can extend thousands of miles) for his Competitive Edge project. Scripps scientists have been able to track atmospheric rivers data aboard aircrafts, which fly directly through the intense storms. The thrill of this research has inspired Ajoku to one day get his pilot’s license.
Ajoku is now studying climate science and the effect of aerosols on the environment under the guidance of Scripps Assistant Professor Amato Evan. Once Ajoku finishes his doctoral program, he hopes to work for the National Science Foundation conducting environmental modeling or as a professor serving underrepresented communities.
Although Shipley, Kwan, Rivera, and Ajoku have personal histories and backgrounds as diverse as their research interests, all four fellowship recipients share a common passion for the pursuit of scientific knowledge—and perhaps there is no better place for them than at Scripps Oceanography.
**To learn more about the San Diego Fellowship, please visit: http://ogs.ucsd.edu/financial/fellowships/entering-students/sd-fellowship.html
**To learn more about the Competitive Edge Program, please visit: http://ogs.ucsd.edu/degrees/summer-researches/competitive-edge/index.html