Two URI students and four recent graduates awarded research fellowships from National Science Foundation

University celebrates six Graduate Research Fellowship Program winners this year

KINGSTON, R.I. – June 25, 2024 – The University of Rhode Island is proud to announce that two current students and four recent graduates have been awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships for 2024. 

The NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program recognizes and supports outstanding students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines pursuing research-based advanced degrees in the United States. Fellows receive a substantial annual stipend, and funding for tuition and fees, worth $159,000 each over three years.

The National Science Foundation instituted the Graduate Research Fellowship in 1952, with the goal of encouraging scientific research and ensuring comprehensive research programs for students in the U.S. Since then, the NSF has funded more than 46,500 fellowships and many former graduate fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates and members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cassandra Cerasia: ocean focused

Ph.D. candidate Cassandra Cerasia is using her National Science Foundation fellowship at URI to study how human actions and environmental stressors affect marine populations.

Cassandra Cerasia always knew that she wanted to dedicate her life to protecting the marine environment, despite growing up far from the ocean in rural Mayfield, New York.

Now a first-year graduate student in biological and environmental sciences, she recalls, “As a child, I was drawn to the ocean and all the amazing life it offered.” She kept journals capturing her research and observations from aquariums and books. As time passed, Cerasia learned how threatened the ocean is due to factors like overfishing, pollution, and climate change, and felt the call to pursue a career in ocean advocacy.

After studying marine biology at Roger Williams University, as well as chemistry and aquaculture, Cerasia began her Ph.D. studies at URI last year, with a focus on evolution and marine biology. Working in associate professor Jonathan Puritz’s lab, she is studying how environmental stressors exaggerated by human activity influence eastern oyster populations. Highlights of her time at URI so far include days in the field collecting oysters for research, attending the National Shellfisheries Association conference, and working with undergraduate researchers.

“I believe it is essential for everyone in society to have a basic understanding and appreciation of science to better understand the natural world and our impacts on it,” she says.

Camila Cersosimo: interdisciplinary focus

Camila Cersosimo ’24 will use her NSF fellowship at MIT, where she begins her Ph.D. this fall. Cersosimo will research respiratory diseases there.

A recently graduated chemical engineering major, Camila Cersosimo ’24 (of Lincoln) will use her award at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, beginning her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in September.

Immigrating to the U.S. at 18 and having to work to finance her education meant that Cersosimo took longer to complete her undergraduate journey than most students. A first-generation student from the Dominican Republic, Cersosimo enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island and got her first taste of research working as a lab technician at Rhode Island Hospital while in school.

“I got a taste of the difficulties of diagnosing and treating serious illnesses,” she says, “and noticed the role research plays in solving those problems.”

In 2021, Cersosimo transferred to URI, joining associate professor Samantha Meenach’s lab to help develop therapeutics to treat pulmonary disease. She says her experiences while at URI made her appreciate the relevance of her chosen field for societal well-being. She decided to apply for the NSF fellowship as a way to become more familiar with her topic of interest before graduate school applications; learning that her “practice” application was successful was a welcome surprise.

At URI, she was also named a Goldwater Scholar in 2023, participated in the MARC U*STAR undergraduate research training program, and received the Undergraduate Academic Excellence Award for chemical engineering at graduation.

While at times she felt overwhelmed by the American education system, mentorship made a difference and she hopes to become a mentor for other non-traditional students in the future.

Cersosimo says URI expanded her interests and skills, with the support and encouragement found there: “Although I’m not sure of exactly what position or industry I’d like to work in after getting my Ph.D., I know I’ll have the skills to solve novel and difficult problems anywhere I go.”

Malachy McCaffrey: forward motion

Malachy McCaffrey ’20 says he had wonderful mentors and peers in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences. He will start his master’s in oceanography at URI this fall.

Malachy McCaffrey, a 2020 URI marine biology graduate from the Bronx, New York, is now studying for his master’s degree at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

“URI’s proximity to the ocean and excellent research diving program were major factors that contributed to my decision to attend college here,” he says.

McCaffrey will complete his studies under the supervision of assistant professor Kristy Lewis. He is interested in comparing long-term data from the GSO Narragansett Bay Fish Trawl Survey with water quality and nutrient monitoring data from the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. He hopes to integrate these data sources with community-based data from local fishers to investigate how changes in water quality over space and time have affected fished species in Narragansett Bay.

Persistence was the key to McCaffrey’s success, receiving the fellowship after three attempts over four years. He wrote his first application in fall 2020 between hauls on fishing vessels out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska while working as a fisheries observer. He used what he learned from prior efforts to write a successful application the third time around.

McCaffrey says his time spent working in Alaska and as a water quality manager along the Texas Coastal Bend have informed his plans to study the ecological and human dimensions of marine resource use.

“By blending methodologies in the biological and social sciences, there is potential to make considerable advancements in our understanding of fisheries management and climate adaptation,” he says. “The goal of this research is to generate tangible, lasting benefits toward coastal ecosystems and the people that rely upon them.”

NSF recognizes recent alumni

Three URI alumni, now at other institutions, also received Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation.

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient Katie Gheysen ’23 is now putting her marine biology degree to use at Texas A&M where she is studying niche partitioning in local species.

Mary Katherine Gheysen: finding her niche

Katie Gheysen ’23, a marine biology / Spanish and Honors Program graduate from Illinois, is currently in her first year of graduate studies at Texas A&M.

“I loved my time at Rhody!” she enthuses. “URI was my top choice school because of the great marine biology program.”

At URI, Gheysen worked with assistant professor Brad Wetherbee as a coastal and environmental fellow during the summer, memorably catching the first shortfin mako shark of the season one year, off the Rhode Island coast. Gheysen appreciates that she was able to work with URI faculty experts in their fields while a student.

Now pursuing her M.S. in Corpus Christi, Gheysen says it’s going well so far. Her thesis there focuses on the movements and habitat use of bonnethead sharks, spinner sharks, and cownose rays in Aransas, Redfish and Corpus Christi bays, studying niche partitioning between species.

Kristen Harder: science for social change

Kristen Harder ’23 is using their NSF grant to understand the molecular effects of social stress. Harder says they were drawn to URI for the opportunities the University has to offer.

Kristen Harder ’23, of Burlington, Massachusetts, majored in cell and molecular biology at URI. Harder conducted research in assistant professor Jaime Ross’s lab, where they also received an RI-INBRE fellowship and completed an honors project. They are now a first-year Ph.D. student at Boston University, studying genetics. Harder is investigating phagocytic cell death in the brain, to better understand synaptic pruning, an important neurological process in adolescence that is affected by stress, experience, and genetics. Such pruning is important for learning and cognitive function. Understanding its mechanisms will uncover more about neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders.

“One of the biggest highlights from my time at URI were my social science and honors courses, and the opportunities we had in these classes to create meaningful projects that would impact the community,” they say. “I am grateful for the vast learning opportunities at URI. My education there went deeper than classroom learning, teaching me much more about community and inspiring me to combine my passions for science and social sciences.”

Harder hopes to better understand how social stressors such as poverty, homelessness, and trauma affect molecular pathways and gene expression.

“I hope my work as a scientist can lead to meaningful change in social policy and public health to improve the lives of those facing socioeconomic stress and adversity.”

Erik Schlicht: interests sparked

Erik Schlicht ’20 will use his fellowship to fund three years of his Ph.D. in archaeology at Southern Methodist University.

Erik Schlicht ’20 first enrolled at URI as a theatre and political science major. He later added anthropology because he found it useful for thinking about how the world works.

After graduation, Schlicht set out to see the world and spent nearly a year volunteering with AmeriCorps out West. He traveled the country as part of a small crew of young adults doing any task assigned — trail construction, supporting COVID vaccine clinics, building a fence for an animal shelter. He also worked with the United Way to support people affected by wildfires in the Sierra Nevada which sparked his interest in fires as a research focus. Now he’s in his second year of doctoral studies in archaeology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, focusing on the fire history of the mountain range.

“Anthropology’s focus on culture really interested me,” he says. “In addition to my anthropology coursework, my time with the theatre department helped me be successful. I think theatre teaches skills such as creative and holistic thinking, public speaking, management, and collaboration. Working on shows in various roles from acting to house management was one of the highlights of my time at URI.” Schlicht was even one of URI’s first TEDx speakers as a student.

Now Schlicht hopes to understand how Indigenous peoples shaped fire regimes in the Sierra Nevada with prescribed burns and what the sociocultural and ecological effects of those fires were. He also hopes to learn how and if modern prescribed burns are comparable to prescribed burns set before contact.

“The fellowship gives me breathing room to make it happen.”

Five URI students and recent graduates also received GRFP Honorable Mentions this year. Congratulations to Dana Allababidi ’24, a graduating senior in chemical engineering, who will pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan this fall; Anna Cetera ’24, a graduating senior in biomedical engineering and Spanish, who will pursue a master’s in electrical engineering at URI this fall; Lauren Johnson, a doctoral student in the biological and environmental sciences Ph.D. program; Nazaret Suazo ’19 (psychology and Honors Program), a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Myles Wagner ’23 (marine biology and cell and molecular biology), a first-year doctoral student at Texas A&M.

For more information about the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, or other fellowship opportunities, visit or contact Kathleen Maher (