(July 10, 2015) -- The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi has selected Stephen Wenceslao Evans '15 as a recipient of the Marcus L. Urann Fellowship. Evans, who graduated summa cum laude with highest honors in the UTSA Honors College in May, will begin doctoral studies in neuroscience at Stanford University this fall.
Evans is one of only six recipients nationwide to receive the prestigious $15,000 fellowship, named for the Society's founder.
"Stephen is an exceptional student," says Todd Troyer, associate professor of biology, "and has great potential for going on to do important and creative science."
But earlier in his life, Evans says his academics were anything but exceptional. "I hated school," he says bluntly. He did not find schoolwork stimulating and did only well enough to get by. After high school, the Los Altos Hill, Calif., native joined the Army. He felt a call to serve but still was not certain about his bigger life goals. As it turns out, his Army experience would set him on his education and career path.
Evans was deployed to Iraq as the sole medical specialist in an Army combat engineer unit. In October 2009, he was seriously wounded when an explosion struck his vehicle during a route-clearance mission, resulting in mild traumatic brain injury and severe leg injuries. He came to San Antonio to begin an extensive rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center, including an experimental procedure to regrow his tibia and fibula, a process that took 14 months.
As a medic, Evans says, he had been responsible for the physical and mental health of every soldier in his unit — including his own — and as such took an active role in his own recovery. To aid in his physical rehabilitation, he took up kayaking and canoeing as an instructor, guide and competitor, earning gold in the men's para kayak slalom in the Pan-American Games in 2010.
He also started taking college courses online. In fall 2011, Evans enrolled at UTSA, declaring a major in biology and minors in mathematics and chemistry. He quickly became fascinated with the interdisciplinary nature of brain research.
"My own brain damage caused me to perceive my reality very differently than those around me, something that fostered my growing curiosity about sensory perception, and the way the brain creates representations of the world it exists in," Evans says. "Having been a medic, it has been my job to keep people alive. While I had previously focused on peripheral wounds, understanding the brain began to emerge as the most logical solution to any kind of health problem; after all our perception is our reality."
At UTSA, Evans started working with Troyer, whose research focuses on vocal development in songbirds, which is analogous to human speech learning. In the laboratory, Evans became interested in how birds use auditory feedback to drive changes in motor behavior, and he developed a noninvasive and reversible technique to prevent them from hearing their own song. This, he says, allows him to monitor how the brain integrates sensory feedback and the lack thereof. He presented a poster of his research at last year's Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, and now is working on a publication. He also won best undergraduate presentation in neurobiology at last fall's UTSA Research Symposium.
"As a young scientist, Stephen has it all," Troyer says. "He is bright and self-motivated, he works hard, he asks the big questions, and he loves to dig beneath the surface."
As a doctoral student, Evans plans to study how the brain transforms sensory data to produce motor outputs with hopes of developing a fully integrated brain-interface device. Stanford has several labs working on brain-machine interfaces, he says, and he plans to begin laboratory rotations when he moves to California this fall. Another benefit of being in Palo Alto is he and his wife both will be within a half hour of their families.
"I find myself very fortunate to have experienced all that I have," says Evans. "It has led me to where I am now, and I wouldn't trade that for anything."
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