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Doctoral students in neuroscience earn prestigious fellowships

Doctoral students in neuroscience earn prestigious fellowships

SEPTEMBER 14, 2021 — Two UTSA Ph.D. students have earned prestigious awards to support their research careers, in turn helping to diversify the field of neuroscience.

Vanessa Cerda and Tara Flaugher, UTSA doctoral students in neuroscience, were recently selected to receive highly competitive fellowships that will support their graduate studies. Cerda received an award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Flaugher secured two awards from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the Pat Tillman Foundation. The students are among the first at UTSA to receive these esteemed awards.

Cerda and Flaugher are mentored by Nicole Wicha, a professor in the newly formed Department of Neuroscience, Developmental and Regenerative Biology, and a fellow in the National iAspire STEM Leadership Academy. Both students will conduct their dissertation research at Wicha’s Brain, Language and Cognition Laboratory.

“Both of these extraordinary researchers won highly competitive doctoral funding awards that will support their training at UTSA,” Wicha said. “Even more impressive, both of these awards secure funding for research careers after completing their Ph.D. training, which is extremely rare. These fellowships will pave the path for their research careers.”


“These fellowships will pave the path for their research careers.”



Cerda received the 2021 NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award. This F99/K00 fellowship mechanism will provide full stipend, tuition and career development support for the remaining two years of her doctoral training, as well as support the transition from predoctoral to postdoctoral training. After graduating from UTSA, Cerda will receive four years of fellowship and career development to support her postdoctoral research and her transition to an independent research career. 

Cerda is investigating how Spanish-English bilingual children and adults process arithmetic in each of their languages. Her dissertation incorporates two state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques to understand how memorized multiplication facts are processed in the bilingual brain. Given that a large percentage of the U.S. population is bilingual, her research has broad impact for understanding healthy cognitive development in bilingual children. Cerda hopes that her research will eventually lead to evidence-based practices in education for all children.

Cerda is from Progreso, Texas, a small border town in the Rio Grande Valley where she graduated as the valedictorian in her high school class. As a member of UTSA’s Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) Program, she was introduced to a strong support system of diverse students and faculty who contributed to her development as a Latina scientist.

“Coming from a predominantly bilingual community, I was naturally drawn to Dr. Wicha’s work on the bilingual brain,” Cerda said. “As a Hispanic Serving Institution, I’ve found that UTSA’s diverse student body makes for a unique environment to learn, conduct research and create lasting connections.”

Flaugher received a 2021 DoD Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship. This award will support Flaugher for up to five years with a stipend, full tuition and summer internships, as well as full-time employment as a researcher with the Department of Defense after graduation. Flaugher is excited for the opportunity to apply her knowledge and skills obtained from the UTSA neuroscience program as a civilian research scientist at the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific in San Diego, California, within the cognitive, neural and behavioral science discipline following graduation.

Flaugher was also selected from a highly competitive national search as a 2021 Tillman Scholar. Each year, the Pat Tillman Foundation selects 60 military service members, veterans and spouses from a nationwide applicant pool based on a proven track record of leadership, continued pursuit of education and commitment to service beyond self. Flaugher is the first student at UTSA to receive this award. As a scholar, she will receive financial support for her doctoral studies and access to national network and professional development opportunities.

Flaugher is conducting her dissertation research in collaboration with Wicha and Rocio Norman of UT Health San Antonio. She is investigating the brain and behavioral correlations for language comprehension in adults with a history of mild traumatic brain injury or concussion.

“Choosing to pursue my Ph.D. at UTSA was an easy decision. The university’s specialties aligned with my research goals, and it provided me with opportunities to conduct cutting-edge research with support from researchers in the UTSA Neurosciences Institute and Brain Health Consortium,” Flaugher said.

As a Navy veteran, Flaugher was impressed by UTSA’s support of its military community and appreciates the university’s large military community. “There are many former service members attending UTSA and there’s a Department of Veteran Affairs office on campus,” Flaugher said. “UTSA cultivates a very inclusive environment. There is a central theme of unity as you walk past students from diverse backgrounds across campus. Every day I walk into work, I am inspired.”


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Ambika Mathur, vice provost and dean of The UTSA Graduate School, said, “Vanessa and Tara are two of the brightest and most passionate young neuroscientists. I’m thrilled that their achievements and incredible potential have been recognized by these prestigious and highly competitive awards. Vanessa and Tara have shown incredible tenacity and resilience in reaching these milestones. They are role models for the next generation of neuroscientists, and are breaking barriers in a field that still lacks in diversity.”

UTSA has assembled a world-class research enterprise, comprised of nearly 40 of the nation’s leading brain health researchers, dedicated to conquering the greatest mysteries of the brain. These researchers are leveraging their expertise in neurodegenerative disease, brain circuits and electrical signaling, traumatic brain injury, regenerative medicine, stem cell therapies, medicinal chemistry, neuroinflammation, drug design and psychology to collaborate on complex, large-scale research projects that will produce a greater understanding of the brain’s complexity and the factors that cause its decline.

Bruce Forey



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of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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UTSA Today is produced by University Communications and Marketing, the official news source of The University of Texas at San Antonio. Send your feedback to news@utsa.edu. Keep up-to-date on UTSA news by visiting UTSA Today. Connect with UTSA online at Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram.


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