More than 2,000 students will join the ranks of nearly 120,000 UNLV alumni Dec. 18 as they cross the Thomas & Mack Center stage at the university’s winter commencement.
The Class of 2018 hails from 33 states and 49 foreign countries, many are the first in their family to graduate from college, and more than half – 63 percent – are from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
Each student forged their own path to graduation, but they’ll converge at commencement to celebrate their remarkable accomplishments with peers, professors, and family, and to begin the next stage of their journey.
An enduring commencement tradition is for the president to honor a select group of outstanding graduates who exemplify the academic, research, and community impact of the graduating class. This winter’s honorees include standout researchers and educators, an aspiring physician, and ambassadors for enhanced diversity in STEM and medicine.
B.S. in Biological Sciences; Minor in French, Honors College
Aspiring physician Kevin Ashi’s mission to solve global public health challenges is a path paved through life experiences, hard work, and a philosophy built on taking chances.
A first-generation college student and graduate of Las Vegas’ Palo Verde High School, Ashi came to UNLV on a mission to forge a career path dedicated to underserved people and increasing the availability of preventive health around the world. He participated in undergraduate research, studied abroad, and tutored students in the Academic Success Center. He’s also lobbied for STEM research funding in Washington, D.C., and he spent the past summer in Peru as part of Harvard University’s Multidisciplinary International Research Training program.
As a sophomore in 2016, Ashi and four of his peers – all aspiring physicians – co-founded the Latino Pre-Med Student Association to encourage young Latinos to pursue careers in the health fields. Just two years later, the group has grown to 50 members and maintains a strong focus on education and outreach events in local schools.
A native Spanish speaker who’s fluent in English and speaks conversational French and Arabic, Ashi also volunteers as an interpreter for Catholic Charities and Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada.
A member of UNLV’s Honors College, Ashi graduates with a bachelor of science in biology and a minor in French. His future plans include medical school, some additional study abroad, and, eventually, a role with the World Health Organization.
Ph.D. in Chemistry (Chemistry Education)
Schetema Nealy’s academic resume reads like a series of extraordinary firsts. She was the first in her family to attend and graduate from a four-year college and was also the first in her family to enter graduate school, where she ultimately earned two master’s degrees.
At UNLV, she became part of the university’s inaugural cohort of chemistry education scholars and is now the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from UNLV.
“The thing that I find so incredibly amazing about Schetema is her desire to use who she is and what she has learned to benefit others,” said MaryKay Orgill, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UNLV and one of her nominators.
Nealy, who graduates with a 3.9 GPA, is passionate about supporting and encouraging students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue and remain in STEM fields, and her dissertation research has focused on this area of study.
“Her research is the first of its kind and will help campus organizations know what they can do more of to support underrepresented students in earning STEM degrees,” Orgill said.
Her work has also resulted in two peer-reviewed conference proceedings publications, an invited book chapter, 15 conference presentations and four manuscripts that are in various stages of review.
To her two children, Naima and Emerson, she’s known as “Dr. Mom.”
B.S. in Public Health
Glahnnia Rates is the epitome of perseverance. Five years ago, a painful health condition disrupted her studies, and she left her first college thinking that it might not be the right path for her.
As her disease worsened, she considered jobs that don’t require a college degree. But with the endless encouragement of her family, she decided to go back to college. This time, she chose UNLV, and tore off the negative labels that others, and even her disease, had previously assigned her. Within a year-and-a-half of enrolling at UNLV, her disease went into remission and she thrived on campus. She’s ending her undergraduate career with an impressive 3.7 GPA.
“I understood that the only thing that was standing in the way of my future goals was myself,” Rates said.
In addition to boosting her academic record, Rates has displayed a strong passion to make a difference in the community through her work in public health. She serves in various leadership roles around the university, including president and undergraduate scheduling liaison of the Public Health Student Association, vice president of marketing for the National Pan-Hellenic Council, and as vice president and treasurer of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated.
Additionally, she’s working with the American Public Health Association as Vice Publicity Secretary of the Black Caucus of Health Workers and as co-chair of the communications committee of the Student Assembly. She's also involved with the Delta Omega public health and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies, and with the Southern Nevada Health District on two ongoing research projects focused on challenging and changing health disparities among the region’s residents.
Rates will continue her education at UNLV this spring in the public health master’s degree program with a concentration in epidemiology and biostatistics.
Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology
When it comes to Surbhi Sharma, the numbers tell a story.
She graduates with a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology with a 3.8 GPA. Along the way, she received 11 research grants, presented her work at nine professional conferences, delivered 14 talks, presented seven posters, and received multiple scholarships and awards, including the UNLV Access Grant for high-achieving students.
Sharma’s work is aimed at changing lives. Glowing recommendations from teachers and students earned her a coveted spot in renowned scientist Martin Schiller's lab, where she advanced research on minimotifs — a database that helps researchers identify new functions in proteins and how mutations cause diseases.
Her dissertation on C-terminal minimotifs will be submitted as manuscripts, and she has prepared two others. But it's not just her own education she pushes for: Surbhi has trained more than 10 undergraduates, several of whom have gone on to dental school or now work as residents in local hospitals.
Nominators describe Sharma as a patient, detail-oriented, and fast learner with strong work ethic who is regularly called on to help review manuscripts by Schiller and other scientists with years in the field.
And if that resume didn't sound exhausting enough, she served for two years on the Graduate and Professional Student Association as the School of Life Sciences rep before she was elected president.
Sharma has served on 19 committees, earning the GPSA Service Award, a summer scholarship by the UNLV Graduate College, and an invitation to represent UNLV Research as a student delegate at the Nevada Capitol. She has also participated in the Rebel STEM Academy, Las Vegas Science Cafe, the American Society of Microbiology, and the Graduate Women in Science association.
She is now working as a post-doctoral fellow in Professor Edwin Oh's Neurogenetics and Precision Medicine Lab at UNLV’s Nevada Institute of Personalized Medicine.