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Driven to Discover

Meet three UNLV graduate students pursuing their passions through research and making a big impact in their fields.

Research  |  Nov 8, 2017  |  By Rachel Glaze
man giving presentation

UNLV engineering Ph.D. student Kazi Tamaddun presents research during 2nd Annual Graduate Student Showcase Oct. 13. (Josh Hawkins, UNLV Creative Services)

Only a handful of graduate degrees were given out for the first time at UNLV’s commencement in 1967, and few then would have predicted the remarkable progress that would be made from the university’s nascent Division of Graduate Studies.

Now, 50 years later, more than 1,000 students earn graduate degrees from UNLV each year. The research and creative activity of current graduate students is wide-ranging, and many become noted experts in their fields through research conducted during their time on campus.

As an interested undergraduate student, I attended UNLV Graduate College's 2nd Annual Graduate Student Showcase in October. The theme of the event was a celebration of student accomplishments and a discussion of the college’s fruitful future. I was impressed at the students' drive to discover, and I had the opportunity to speak with a few of them. Here's what I learned.

Breanna Boppre - Criminal Justice

Breanna Boppre is a doctoral candidate in criminology and criminal justice studying women’s pathways through justice-involvement. Breanna spent much of her childhood visiting her father behind bars after he was involved with nonviolent drug-related offenses; this is what sparked her fascination with the correctional system.

Through her mentor, Emily Salisbury, an associate professor in criminal justice, Boppre was introduced to feminist criminology. She became inspired to learn more about the specific needs women have should they find themselves behind bars and the policies that affect them.

“Correctional policies were typically designed for men and then generalized when it came to women,” Boppre notes. “Because of this, my research seeks to improve correctional supervision and treatment programming for women.” Specifically, she wants to improve the experience of minority women’s experiences with the justice system. “Impoverished Latina and black women are disproportionately incarcerated in comparison to their populations in the general public,” she said. “I want to better understand diversity in women’s justice involvement because the female experience is not universal and is shaped by race and social class.”

Michael Moncrieff - Anthropology

Michael Moncrieff is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology. I was intrigued to hear of the different research developments that stem from this field, and I was happy to see that what Moncrieff is studying can be applied strongly to what we are experiencing currently as a global community. Moncrieff studies the way in which the aspects of someone’s particular social environment and social affiliations impact his or her moral reasoning.

Moncrieff was able to go to the Republic of Croatia on a Fulbright grant to conduct the research for his dissertation.

“Studying the evolution of cooperation [in people], the paradox we see between the extensive cooperation of unrelated individuals in the modern world and the extreme violence that can emerge between neighbors during periods of violent social strife is perplexing,” he said.

Citing that he has been the victim of violence due to prejudice, he explains, “I study coalitional psychology because I know that knowledge in this area is essential for resolving many of the social problems we face today.” Moncrieff’s research will aid in mitigating problems associated with extremism and ethnic violence.

Kazi Tamaddun - Civil and Environmental Engineering

Kazi Tamaddun is a second-year Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering working with professor Sajjad Ahmad. Through computational and numerical modeling techniques, he is working on changing the way humans understand climate variabilities in oceanic-atmospheric systems across the continental U.S. and the Indian subcontinent with the help of artificial intelligence.

“I would say that trying to get to know how nature behaves is very innate to humans...our endeavor is not that different,” Tamaddun noted.

Tamaddun’s interest in engineering stemmed from his passion for math and physics. During his undergraduate thesis in Bangladesh, he had the opportunity to work with the development of a hydrodynamic simulation model, a model able to simulate a tsunami. His search for data-driven modeling continued as he came to the U.S. to further his studies. For Tamaddun, learning how hydroclimatic variables across the world are behaving with respect to the changes in large-scale oceanic-atmospheric systems is the key.

“Trying to figure out the most important features of the data becomes a big challenge,” said Tamaddun. “Making a sense of such big databases by a human brain is highly improbable, if not impossible. That is what brought us to the application of artificial intelligence. With the development of machine learning techniques, machines can not only learn, they can also take rational decisions.”

Tamaddun works with artificial neural networks and complex algorithms, which are mathematical ways to simulate the learning process of human brains. They want to train the machines to learn about the detected patterns observed in the obtained hydroclimatic data. This research could one day increase confidence in predicting extreme climate events and provide sustainable solutions to future challenges in water resources management.

After listening to these students present, it's clear to me that no matter where one’s interests lie — in the sciences, arts, or humanities — everyone has a place in the world where they can make a difference. Having the ability to focus on one’s passion while using it to make the world a better place is part of what makes UNLV’s graduate research so amazing. It has been made clear by both the breadth and depth of studies being conducted by these students and many others, UNLV’s Graduate College is able to make a truly positive impact on society, both locally and globally.