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Peña, Bensasson, awarded Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study

Alan Flurry

Plant Biology Doctoral Student Jacqueline Joye Peña and her advisor Assistant Professor Douda Bensasson received the Gilliam Graduate Fellowship Grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The award provides Peña the opportunity to travel to important scientific conferences and meetings in her field, professional development workshops, and a competitive stipend in addition to allowance for diversity and inclusion activities at the graduate level.

“Receiving as award like this feels very validating that researching how natural populations respond to climate change while providing safe spaces for underrepresented groups in STEM are worth doing,” said Peña. “I feel honored to receive such a prestigious fellowship to help me develop as a future scientific investigator.”

The grant allows Bensasson to create support groups for graduate students and to provide unconscious bias training for faculty and graduate students.

Bensasson recognizes that graduate school is tough, and strong friendships help. Black, Latinx and Native American graduate students are underrepresented in U.S. science, and because research is done in small research teams graduate students from these groups may not easily find support networks facing all the same challenges. With the grant, she will host Diversify-STEM coffee hours throughout the year to bring together students from different UGA STEM departments.

In addition to creating a support network for minority graduate students in STEM, Bensasson plans to provide unconscious bias training. This training addresses cultural biases that can be damaging to mentor-mentee relationships. She also plans to host “Power Hours” to discuss this training and ways to improve diversity and inclusion at UGA.

“I want to do what I can as a mentor to open the door wider for the next group coming,” said Bensasson. “If you encounter difficulties in your career, it can be good to right past wrongs, use past experiences to include the next generation of scientists.”

Congratulations to Peña and Dr. Bensasson on this important honor that will further their own scholarship and help create opportunities for others. Both are part of the dynamic Fungal Biology Group at UGA, a variety of laboratory efforts under the direction of faculty from the Franklin College as well as the Warnell School of Forestry, and the USDA.

Image: Jacqueline Joye Peña

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