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As we close out the 2018 academic year, we would like to take a moment to showcase the CASE Worlds Ahead graduates. These graduates exhibit outstanding perseverance, intelligence and personal strength during their time at FIU, and fully demonstrate and embrace what it means to be Worlds Ahead.

Worlds Ahead Graduates are nominated by faculty members to be personally honored during their commencement ceremony. Their ingenuity, compassion, intelligence and courage set them apart from their graduating class. We mark them down in FIU history through a news feature and in the Past Worlds Ahead Graduates record. Read about what makes them Worlds Ahead.

Alayne Burns — Ed.S in School Psychology, School of Education and Human Development   

Alayne Burns served Broward County Public Schools as an elementary and special education teacher for over 10 years. But her path to becoming an educator wasn’t a straight one. With a bachelor’s and master’s degree in communications, she began her career at a public relations firm. But Alayne wanted to make a greater impact on her community. She became a substitute teacher while taking education classes and pursued the certification exams required to teach.

In 2014, Alayne enrolled at FIU to pursue a specialist’s degree in school psychology while teaching full-time. The next year, she experienced double vision, difficulty swallowing and balance problems. She had suffered a stroke. Not long after, she suffered a second one and required surgery for a rare blood vessel abnormality. Undeterred, Alayne was back at FIU three months later. She earned a 4.0 GPA that semester.

After graduating, Alayne is looking to secure a job with the public school system and eventually run her own private practice. She dedicates her degree to her father, Larry, an educator and psychologist, who passed away in 2010.

Francesco Sessa – Bachelor of Science in Physics, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

It’s a Friday afternoon and Francesco Sessa is barefoot. He’s covered in what looks like white paint. It is actually cornstarch – the primary ingredient in a slurry that is solid enough to walk across or liquid enough to trap spring break campers, depending on how quickly they move across the surface. Despite the messiness, he is excited for the opportunity to make children curious about physics, the way YouTube videos once inspired his own curiosity.

Growing up, Francesco wondered if he would ever get the chance to study physics, much less inspire other children. A first-generation college student, he arrived in the United States at age 2. His mother worked multiple low-paying jobs and always took him with her. She taught him the value of working hard, saving and doing well in school. Francesco followed his mother’s example. He worked two jobs – to pay for college and support himself and his mother. He studied harder. With plenty of AP credits, he earned an associate degree from Broward College in one semester. With classmate Cynthia Nuñez and others, Francesco co-founded the student organization Advancement for Women in STEM. He and Cynthia fell in love. They married.

After commencement, Francesco and Cynthia will pursue Ph.D.’s in physics. His goal – become a professor like Robert Laird, Pete Markowitz, Caroline Simpson and other physics department mentors who helped him along the way.

Arthur J.N. Scavella — Ed.D in Educational Administration and Supervision, School of Education and Human Development 

Arthur Scavella was diagnosed from birth with a rare disease that causes joints in the arms or legs to be permanently bent or straightened, doctors told Arthur’s family he would never walk and would likely have intellectual disabilities. His mother, Gloria, quit her job at the U.S. Postal Service to care for Arthur. By age 6, he had weathered countless surgeries to ensure he could walk. He learned to play the cello in elementary school and continued through high school, where his music teacher inspired Arthur to make teaching music his career.

He graduated high school with honors and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FIU. But Arthur still had a ways to go in fulfilling the one request his mother made of him and his sister when they were children – to earn the highest degree in their field. Arthur came back to FIU and set his sights on earning a doctorate in educational administration and supervision. His dissertation focused on whether children who participated in band performed better on standardized tests – they do. Arthur credits professors Peter Cistone and Thomas G. Reio, Jr. for helping him persevere and keep his promise to his mother.

Arthur plans to become a principal or administrator in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where for the last nine years has been director of bands and orchestral studies at Arthur & Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts.

Joana Antunes – Ph.D in Biochemistry, School of Integrated Science and Humanity   

Joana Antunes dedicated her Ph.D. research to improving methods for body fluid discrimination in crime scenes. Joana’s work can help prove someone’s innocence or guilt in a variety of crimes. When investigating child abuse, matching the DNA found on a child to an adult doesn’t prove abuse. A parent or guardian’s DNA can be left behind by simply bathing, dressing or hugging a child. But knowing what body fluid carried the DNA can help investigators determine if a crime was committed.

Joana earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biochemistry from the Universidade da Beira Interior in her native Portugal. In 2011, she enrolled at FIU to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry with a focus in forensic science. Joana holds a patent for identifying vaginal cells from DNA samples collected from crime scenes. She received a graduate fellowship from the National Institute of Justice to conduct her research. She was a speaker at several forensic conferences, including the American Academy for Forensic Sciences and the International Symposium on Human Identification, which brought together scientists and law enforcement to learn about DNA research, techniques and processes.

Joana has also published seven research papers and one book chapter. Joana wants to dedicate her career to wildlife forensics and bringing people guilty of crimes against animals to justice.

Daniela Alvarez Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Daniela Alvarez Londoño was 5 years old when her family moved to Miami from Colombia in search of a better life. The sacrifices her parents made crafted a path to success for Daniela. Their vision for her — a college education.

Daniela shared in that vision early on. While in high school, she took an AP psychology class and applied what she learned there at home with her brother and sister, then just 3 and 5 years old. If she could help them grow up with a stronger sense of self-esteem and do well in school, she wanted to make sure other children had the same opportunity. She was determined to pursue a degree in developmental psychology.

At FIU Daniela focused her research on understanding why there is a gender gap in the STEM disciplines. With the guidance of psychology professor Shannon Pruden, Daniela found that sex differences in mental rotation ability – how we mentally manipulate, retain and retrieve information about dynamic 3D objects – are explained by spatial anxiety, such as anxiety about navigating about the world or following a diagram. This suggests the gender gap in STEM may be a product of something that’s treatable and manageable.

After graduation, Daniela is heading to the University of California Irvine to pursue a Ph.D. in education.

Mariluz Soula – Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and Bachelor of Arts in English, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Mariluz Soula’s inquisitive childhood spirit has shaped the woman she is today. Her curiosity for science led her to pursue a career in biomedical research. Under the guidance of FIU geneticist Alexander Agoulnik and funded by the MARC U*STAR program, her research focused on finding a treatment for fibrotic diseases, including liver cirrhosis, chronic kidney disease and uterine fibroids.

Born to immigrant parents in Miami, Mariluz and her two older sisters are first-generation college students. Mariluz is graduating debt-free after earning degrees in biology and English, a third major in interdisciplinary studies, a minor in chemistry, and a certificate in women’s and gender studies.

Mariluz has made the most of her time at FIU. She has been a Peer-Led Team Learning instructor, Relay for Life committee member and STEM Saturday facilitator. As the Quantifying Biology in the Classroom Club President, she helped organize the Women in Science Seminar at FIU to advocate for equality in STEM fields. She made the dean’s list every semester and received multiple scholarships including the FIU Presidential Scholarship. Mariluz is first co-author on an article published in the Journal of Endocrine Society and is co-author on another published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and several pending manuscripts.

After graduation, Mariluz will be pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical science at The Rockefeller University. She plans to research cancer metabolism and mechanisms of disease.

 Christopher Herrera – Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Christopher Herrera sought out research opportunities in medicine from the moment he arrived at FIU. His goal: to become a primary care physician, especially for people who could not afford healthcare.

Christopher eventually landed a position in the lab of Madhavan Nair from the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. Christopher is researching a promising new therapeutic agent that would combat HIV infection. Christopher is also in the Advanced Research and Creativity in Honors (ARCH) program, which is only open to Honors College students who are completing groundbreaking research, innovative products, or unique creative works. Christopher’s ARCH project is focused on developing a clinical treatment for people diagnosed with HIV.

In his spare time, Christopher volunteers at VITAS Hospice, where he provides emotional and spiritual comfort to patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses and their families. He also has served as the committee chairperson for the Multicultural Appreciation Event at FIU, which highlighted various global cultures, art, and performances. He spearheaded the event and oversaw volunteers.

After graduation, Christopher will begin the next chapter of his life, pursuing his medical degree at Indiana University School of Medicine.

See the full list of the Spring 2018 Worlds Ahead graduates.