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Winter 2016 Outstanding Graduates

Four newly minted grads will be recognized by UNLV President Len Jessup during Saturday's commencement for their academic and research excellence.

Campus News  |  Dec 15, 2016  |  By UNLV News Center
cloesup of commencement cap and 2016 tassle

What do the Mount Charleston Blue Butterfly, thin-film solar cells, film festivals, and soft robotics have in common? Not a lot, we suspect, but one thread tying them all together is the work of UNLV’s 2016 Winter Outstanding Graduates.

Each semester, the university seeks campus and community nominations for outstanding graduates to be recognized by the president during commencement. The enduring campus tradition continues this semester, as President Len Jessup will highlight four newly minted grads for their academic success, research, and community service.

Close to 2,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students are eligible to participate in this winter’s commencement. Graduates range in age from 19 to 77 and hail from 32 states and 46 countries. Roughly 84 percent of graduates are Nevada residents. Since 1964, UNLV has awarded more than 126,000 degrees.

Hunter Hopewell – B.A. in Film (Honors)

You may not see Hunter Hopewell in Hollywood at the next Oscar ceremony, but stay tuned for coming attractions. With his achievements, he may earn a trip there before long. Earlier this year, this 40-time award-winning filmmaker captured first place in the Peace in the Streets Global Film Festival and received his award from former United Nations Under Secretary General Chowdhury. Among the other honors this Coronado High School graduate has racked up are:

• Winning documentary of the year at the Great American No Bull Challenge for Numbskull, his film about bullying based on his own personal experiences.

• Winning the Best Nevada Filmmaker Award at the Dam Short Film Festival for his film Exchange, which made him one of eight finalists competing for a $25,000 grant.  

• Winning eight awards in a single year at the UNLV Spring Flicks Film Festival.

With support from his parents and mentor, he also interned at the Cannes Film Festival and studied abroad in Spain during his undergraduate years. Today, this Honors College and College of Fine Arts student graduates with a Bachelor of Arts degree in film with university honors — and a GPA of 3.88. His immediate post-commencement plan? To work on his first feature film and to produce the first annual Rock*Comedy*Film Festival right here in the community he grew up in.

Michelle Mezher – Ph.D. in Chemistry

She may have just earned her Ph.D. in chemistry, but Michelle Mezher has already made an impact on the thin-film solar cell industry. A first-generation college student and graduate of the University of San Diego, Michelle entered UNLV’s chemistry doctoral program in 2012 and was immersed immediately in research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to unravel the secrets of the world’s most efficient thin-film solar cells utilizing cutting-edge equipment at UNLV and the Advanced Light Source in Berkeley. Her analysis of how the structures within these solar cells work together – and techniques that could lead to even greater efficiency – adds to growing research to improve development and marketability of highly efficient photovoltaic devices. 

Michelle is author or co-author on five peer-reviewed publications in top scientific journals, with three more on the way; she is the recipient of numerous scholarships and awards, including one that led to a half-year at the prestigious Helmholtz-Center Berlin for Materials and Energy in Germany; and she was recently selected to present a tutorial for young scientists at the upcoming Materials Research Society conference. Michelle, who earned a perfect 4.0 GPA in her doctoral studies, is an active mentor and teacher for UNLV chemistry students and currently holds an interim post-doctoral position in the department.

Tyler Stalbaum - Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering

Well before crossing the commencement stage, Ph.D. student Tyler Stalbaum earned praise for his contributions to the field of soft robotics.

For the past three years, Tyler has explored the “whats” and “hows” behind an emerging genre of soft robotics that uses electric fields to control and reshape materials. Scientists hope the techniques can one day lead to significant advancements in the development of artificial muscles for use in medical procedures and other soft-robotic applications. The science could also be applied to U.S. Navy underwater vehicle applications.

Along the way, Tyler has built quite the resume: He has authored or co-authored two book chapters, four publications in top peer-reviewed research journals, and three conference papers; presented his work at three major engineering conferences; interned at a U.S. National lab; and earned research awards from NASA and the Office of Naval Research. His research works have been cited over 40 times. Through it all, Tyler — an active member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society — has maintained a 4.0 GPA.

Tyler — already an accomplished instructor — has his eyes set on pursuing his dream of an academic career as a college professor. And he’ll continue that journey right here at UNLV, where he’ll teach in Spring 2017.

Aaron Tippetts – B.S. in Biological Sciences (Honors)

Everybody needs a friend, even the endangered Mount Charleston Blue Butterfly.

Icaricia shasta charlestonensis - as the Charleston Blue is known in some circles – and other threatened species may have found one in Aaron Tippetts.

Aaron, a 2016 Truman Scholarship finalist who is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences with an Ecology emphasis, studied the Mount Charleston Blue under the direction of Prof. Daniel Thompson, which led to the completion of an Honors thesis that will further conservation efforts of the endangered species.

Now Aaron wants to continue the fight by attending law school next year with the goal of becoming an environmental attorney for the Federal government. One nominator called Aaron “the epitome of a well-rounded student. He’s involved in undergraduate research, a leader in student organizations on campus, and a dedicated philanthropist.”

On top of his 3.91 GPA and research activities, Aaron also gave back to UNLV, serving as the Philanthropy Chair for the Honors Student Council, President and Vice President of the Alpha Epsilon Delta pre health Honors society, and the founding Co-President of the UNLV Ecology, Conservation, and Evolution club. He's also a Bennett Honors Mentor, a program where upperclassmen assist new freshmen in the Honors College transition from high school to college.