A group of 7 students laugh and talk as they walk across a grass area on the St. Thomas campus
The inaugural cohort of NSF Discovery Scholars at St. Thomas. (l-r): Michael Rosas Ceronio, Marissa Miller, Max Sampson, Ellie Rengel, Gavin Warmkagathje, Amara Jackson and Ishmael Efejuku. Not pictured: Nadia Jeylani. (Carmella Hanlon)

NSF Discovery Scholars Build Community and Advance Research

In fall 2022, St. Thomas was awarded a six-year, $1.5 million NSF S-STEM grant to provide financial support for students interested in key STEM fields. S-STEM grants are specifically intended to increase the country’s research science workforce by funding scholarships and academic support for talented undergraduate students with unmet financial need. With the grant, the College of Arts and Sciences established the NSF Discovery Scholars Program, which, over the course of the grant, will support the needs of 23 students who are interested in pursuing careers in biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, and computer science.

This past fall, St. Thomas welcomed the first cohort of eight students into this exciting program: Ishmael Efejuku (computer science), Amara Jackson (computer science), Nadia Jeylani (computer science), Marissa Miller (biology), Ellie Rengel (neuroscience), Michael Rosas Ceronio (computer science), Max Sampson (computer science) and Gavin Warmkagathje (biochemistry).

The students are finding and building community in the Science Discovery Scholars LLC, which is designed to foster belonging among science-minded individuals. Dr. Jerry Husak, a professor of biology who is also affiliated with the biochemistry, diversity leadership and neuroscience programs at St. Thomas, is one of the faculty leaders of the Living Learning Community.

“This experience has provided an opportunity for the scholars to live and grow with other STEM students,” Husak said. Students in the LLC take three courses together, attend events, socialize and explore possible STEM careers with their peers. They also have access to support and guidance from outstanding faculty and staff in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The scholars are really making some strong connections that I think will enhance their time at St. Thomas and beyond,” added Husak.

Dr. Roxanne Prichard, professor of psychology and neuroscience and coordinator of the program, sees enthusiasm building among the scholars. “There’s a great sense of community and excitement for future opportunities, including the NSF S-STEM Scholars national conference this fall in Chicago,” Prichard shared. “We are currently conducting interviews for our second cohort, and it’s gratifying to share success stories from our first cohort who are finding so many great ways to connect and grow at St. Thomas.”

These scholars are already hard at work on a broad range of projects, a selection which are detailed here. For information about eligibility and the application process, please visit the NSF Discovery Scholars website.


Ellie Rengel

Rengel is working with Dr. Mari Gades (assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience) on a project that examines the behavioral neuropharmacology of kratom, a traditional plant extract used as a stimulant in Southeast Asia.

“I am aware that finding answers or cures to certain diseases or scientific questions is a difficult task and may not be entirely realistic. I aspire to achieve these seemingly unreachable tasks, but I also have some more realistic passions: I hope to help improve current methods of treatment, and to be able to effectively diagnose diseases earlier through research.” —Ellie Rengel

Photo by Carmella Hanlon

Computer Science

Ishmael Efejuku and Michael Rosas Ceronio

Efejuku and Rosas Ceronio, in collaboration with Dr. Jason Sawin (professor of computer science) are engaged in a variety of projects. These endeavors include the development of applications for gathering web data, the creation of promotional materials to showcase the distinct opportunities available to computer and data scientists and the formulation of degree plans that highlight unique opportunities for pursuing double majors at St. Thomas.

Photo by Carmella Hanlon
Photo by Carmella Hanlon

“The internet has seemingly infinite potential and I strive to be someone who is capable of utilizing that potential and using my knowledge practically. With this knowledge, I can teach other people – specifically, children in urban communities who do not have as much exposure or access as others. I believe that seeing a familiar face makes it much easier for kids to pursue a career like computer science.” —Ishmael Efejuku

“I’ve always liked math and problem-solving, and I want to help our society. I want to use my computer science degree to create software and systems that are easy for people to understand and use, so they can go about life with ease.” —Michael Rosas Ceronio