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As we close out the 2019 Spring semester, 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.

Michelle Pena — PhD in Psychology, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Michelle Pena is part of an FIU family. Like her siblings, she completed her undergraduate and graduate education at FIU, but she is the first to earn a PhD.

Her parents left Cuba and settled in Miami where they felt their children would have opportunities to be successful and be surrounded by their Hispanic culture. Michelle credits her family for listening to presentation rehearsals, reading her manuscripts and providing much-needed encouragement on her path to becoming Dr. Pena.

Michelle began her journey at FIU as an undergraduate research assistant in Nadja Schreiber Compo’s lab, where she developed a passion for legal psychology. She decided to pursue her PhD at FIU where she could be part of one of the most competitive legal psychology programs in the country.

With her work, Michelle is closing the research-to-practice gap in law enforcement. She has developed an innovative research program to address how cognitive bias may affect different stages of an investigation. Research shows the expectations or prior beliefs police officers or forensic examiners may have can affect an investigation’s outcome. But Michelle is working closely with the Miami-Dade Forensics Bureau to develop methods that can be implemented in their lab to reduce the possible bias effect.

She has contributed to five published papers and completed 23 conference presentations. After graduation she is headed to Washington, D.C. to continue her research and work with private and government agencies to revolutionize the justice system.

Wenjie Wang — PhD in Chemistry, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

Wenjie Wang is following in her grandfather’s footsteps. He was a doctor in China, an expert at reading MRI scans and could easily identify which diseases were affecting patients’ brains. At FIU, Wenjie found a biomarker in glioblastoma brain cancer cell lines that could one day be used to tell if cancer treatment drugs would be effective for treating the cancer. She has received national recognition for her research and was invited to speak at the Gordon Research Seminar in 2018.

But more than just following in the family business, her fight against glioblastoma is personal. Her aunt died from glioblastoma, the deadliest brain cancer. People diagnosed with this cancer usually have about 15 months to live. Wenjie jumped at the chance to study the lethal cancer at FIU under Biomolecular Sciences Institute Director Yuk-Ching Tse-Dinh.

Further clinical trials are needed to confirm the results of Wenjie’s work – work she is hoping to continue as a postdoctoral researcher at a major national medical research facility.

Jose Medel — Bachelor of Science in Mathematical Sciences, School of Integrated Science and Humanity

When Jose Medel gave his senior presentation — a proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra using Stokes Theorem — the three faculty members judging the work were silenced by their own fascination. Jose’s delivery was as creative as it was complex. He views math like art — something to be observed, discussed and understood.

A son of musicians, Jose grew up in Mexico before moving to the United States with his mother when he was 15. When he decided to go to college, he chose FIU to be closer to his mom. He was a full-time student and worked a full-time job at McDonald’s to help make ends meet. That didn’t leave much time for studying, but the abstract thinker got the attention of several within the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

After several semesters, Jose’s struggles gave way to new opportunities. He left his job and became a tutor at the Center for Academic Success. He liked having a job where he could help people and talk about math all day. It also gave him more time to study. When Jose casually mentioned his love of math to professor Mirroslav Yotov, the professor committed that day to helping Jose succeed. He even helped him obtain a Ronald McNair Scholarship for summer research.

Jose’s life has been a journey of creativity, complexity and perseverance. He is still creating the next chapter, but he knows it will involve FIU for a while longer. He will begin the master’s program in math this fall.

Jacqueline Napuri — Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society

Jacqueline Napuri believes everyone should have access to health care regardless of income or country of origin. Earning her bachelor’s in biological sciences puts her a step closer to becoming a doctor.

Jacqueline Napuri learned the meaning of perseverance and determination from her parents who migrated to the United States from Peru looking for a better future. They worked hard to learn English and provide for their three girls. Jacqueline credits her parents for teaching her the value of education and encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

Throughout her time at FIU, she became a volunteer in Dr. Marisela Agudelo’s lab, in the Department of Immunology and Nano-Medicine, conducting research on the effects of alcohol and synthetic cannabinoids on the immune system. She was hired as a student research assistant. Under the guidance of her mentor, Dr. Agudelo, Jacqueline was recognized as a McNair scholar and presented her research at various conferences. She has contributed to several publications and is currently working on her first publication as lead author.

Jacqueline’s volunteer work is what fuels her passion for medicine. She believes everyone should have access to health care regardless of income or ethnicity. She is an ambassador at the Miami Rescue Mission organizing annual outreach programs. She is also a volunteer at Caring for Miami’s Project Smile to help provide dental health care to low-income families. She has also helped bring smiles to the children at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. Earning her bachelor’s in biological sciences puts her a step closer to becoming a doctor.

After graduation, Jacqueline will be preparing for the MCAT in hopes to attend medical school.

Lajhon Campbell — Master of Science in Geosciences, School of Environment, Arts and Society

The ground shaking is often the first sign of an earthquake, offering little time to act. Seconds can stand between life and death. Lajhon Campbell believes science can give people more time to get out of harm’s way.

Growing up in Jamaica, Lajhon loved math and physics. He dreamed of becoming a scientist, maybe the next Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist. When he shared this dream with one of his high school teachers, she claimed it wouldn’t be possible for him. This would’ve crushed most people, but discouragement just made Lajhon more determined.

In 2015, Lajhon’s mother became severely ill. He moved to Miami to be closer to her and started attending FIU. This was a difficult time, but once again, Lajhon was motivated to succeed and make his family proud.

Under the guidance of geophysicist Shimon Wdowinski, Lajhon used GPS to measure the earth’s movements. He looks for patterns to predict where and when future earthquakes might happen. His research has lifesaving implications. It can inform early alerts and provide recommendations on the safest locations to live in earthquake-prone areas.

A McNair scholar, Lajhon has presented his research at national and international conferences. At 21, he’s also earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in three years.

He will soon break more barriers. Less than one percent of geoscientists in the U.S. with doctoral degrees are black. This fall, Lajhon will pursue a PhD in geophysics at Stony Brook University, hoping once again to challenge notions of what’s possible.

Cindy Lewis — PhD in Biology, School of Environment, Arts and Society

When Cindy Lewis dives down to examine the Florida Reef, sometimes she can’t help but cry into her mask. Many corals have vanished. Those remaining are in a fight for survival – one that Cindy is determined to help them win.

Cindy knew she wanted to study coral after a scuba diving trip in the Caribbean. The grandmother of three went back to school, earned her master’s degree and then, to be closer to the coral, moved from New York to an old conch house in the Florida Keys.

Under the guidance of Associate Professor Mauricio Rodriguez-Lanetty, Cindy conducted research on coral bleaching, disease, recovery and how environmental stressors, including warming seas, have led to the decline of pillar coral – an understudied, yet threatened, species.

Her findings sparked a groundbreaking project: The creation of a metaphorical Noah’s Ark for pillar coral. Over 400 pieces were collected and brought to the Keys Marine Lab. Today, new disease prevention methods, including the use of antibiotic pastes, are successfully being used – which has implications for saving other species of coral.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma almost derailed her work when the backup generator failed. Without power, she found many coral died. Heartbroken, she headed home – only to find it, too, had been destroyed.

Despite these setbacks, Cindy has let nothing stand in the way of her conservation efforts. After graduation, she’ll continue to save coral as the deputy director of the Keys Marine Laboratory.

Ardith Clayton-Wright — EdD in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, School of Education and Human Development

Ardith Clayton-Wright wants to help people with traumatic brain injuries. A dietitian, Ardith struggled to find the resources for her daughter, Alysia, who was seriously injured in a car wreck at 18 years old. Ardith quit her job with Florida’s Department of Health and sought a degree that could facilitate her new life’s work.

Ardith vowed that no other family would experience the same hardship. Not even her own brush with death could stop her.

At FIU, Ardith focused her doctoral research on determining the likelihood of people with traumatic brain injury staying in college. Her work ground to a halt after a doctor gave Ardith the wrong medication during an emergency room visit. For a moment, she flatlined but was resuscitated. As her body recovered, she struggled to understand what was being said to her for a period of time.

Under the guidance of Professor Thomas G. Reio, Jr., Ardith continued her research. Her findings were sobering. Using data from longitudinal studies, Ardith realized that only 35 percent of emerging adults with traumatic brain injuries earn a bachelor’s degree.

She also found that the combination of traumatic brain injury and being an emerging adult created a perfect storm that significantly affects persistence along with hours worked, hours spent studying, annual earnings and familial and social support network.

Ardith plans to focus her future work on creating a traumatic brain injury institute.

See the full list of the Summer 2019 Worlds Ahead graduates.