A boxer and aspiring physician-scientist who’s investigating ways to knock out cystic fibrosis and hospital-borne infections; an ambassador for public health whose mission is to improve how health care is delivered to underserved populations; a budding economist and social sciences researcher who’s uncovering what motivates young people to pursue STEM careers; and a combat veteran who persevered through staggering adversity to earn a Ph.D. and now works tirelessly to improve the quality of life for countless veterans and their families.
These four outstanding graduates join the more than 2,000 students who will officially become UNLV alumni Dec. 17 as they cross the Thomas & Mack Center stage at winter commencement.
The Class of 2019 hails from 33 states and 45 foreign countries, many are the first in their family to graduate from college, and more than half – 64 percent – are from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
An enduring commencement tradition is for the president to honor a select group of outstanding graduates during each commencement ceremony. Dozens of graduating students were nominated by faculty, staff, and community members, and the four students selected exemplify the academic, research, and community impact of the graduating class.
Ph.D. in Public Health
Pearl Kim is a Rebel making in happen in the world of health care and public health research. Over the course of her career at UNLV, she published 16 peer-reviewed research articles, was a course instructor, and founded and served as vice president for the School of Public Health Alumni Chapter, all while maintaining an impressive GPA.
In her recent dissertation, Pearl took on a topic related to improving the performance of health care delivery in Nevada and nationwide. Her broader goal is to study topics related to chronic disease and behavioral health among underserved populations, with the hope that her research will have practical policy implications to better society.
“She is incredibly well-loved by faculty and admired by her fellow students,” one of her nominators wrote. “Her passion and enthusiasm for public health — especially with regard to health care — is so inspiring.”
One of Pearl’s largest projects during her time at UNLV was serving as the project coordinator for palliative care projects funded by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. Pearl was a “key player” in obtaining funding for projects, according to mentor Jay Shen, associate dean of the School of Public Health.
In addition to her academic work, Pearl is very active in the community. She served as a cultural ambassador for the Chinese New Year in the Desert Festival, and also as a vice president for the Las Vegas Youth Orchestra.
Upon graduation, Pearl intends to continue research in different modalities of health care and is determined to see her work make an impact on the world.
Ei Myint brings new meaning to graduating with honors. Myint has earned an impressive 3.95 GPA and graduates summa cum laude with a bachelor’s in economics, minors in both math and psychology, and as a member of UNLV’s Honors College.
After high school, Ei left her native Myanmar for the U.S. to pursue her education and a career in business. During her time at UNLV, she has earned an astounding 14 academic awards, including first place in the UNLV Research and Creative Honors Forum, the Calvert Undergraduate Research Award, and she was named a Lee Scholar. She’s also a math, stats, and economics tutor with the Academic Success Center and Student Support Services on campus; a supplemental instruction leader for courses in business, math, and philosophy; and she’s a published author, writing on the rights and role of women in Myanmar for The Myanmar Times and an online forum hosted by Oxford University.
“During my time at UNLV, I have been fortunate to work with many outstanding undergraduates who have won awards, presented at conferences, and matriculated to top graduate programs," said one of Ei's multiple nominators. "Within this pool, Ei stands out as the strongest – by far – in terms of intellect and motivation.”
Ei’s honors thesis, which is currently being submitted for publication in an academic journal, sought to better understand what motivates high school graduates to pursue college majors in STEM fields. She surveyed hundreds of students and found that pure enjoyment of math and sciences and students’ confidence in their abilities were greater drivers than grades, and that enjoyment is a greater predictor for girls entering STEM fields than for boys. She’s presented her work at numerous conferences, including at a national psychology conference this year at UCLA.
After graduation, she will enter the master’s program in economics at UNLV.
When UNLV Boxing Club president Daniela Rodriguez wasn't taking on contenders in the ring, the pre-med student was busy knocking out: eight research fellowships, co-authoring several publications advancing the study of cystic fibrosis and hospital-acquired infections, winning tons of national awards, and volunteering in the community.
The culmination of all that hard work? Daniela is graduating with a bachelor's in biology and is well on her way to a promising future as a physician-scientist.
The path to this stage wasn't an easy one for the Las Vegas native who, like many first-generation students, faced challenges in adjusting to college-level science courses. But Rodriguez persevered.
One nominator, Professor Boo Shan Tseng, recounted how most undergrad researchers don't make it past one semester in her lab; Daniela, however, has been there two years and rose to the title of lab manager. She has won highly competitive grants and awards from the National Science Foundation and the American Society for Microbiology, to name just a few. This is on top of fulfilling her strong desire to serve her community. Daniela is an active member of the Latino Pre-Medical Student Association and the American Medical Student Association, does outreach to local school children teaching microbiology, and volunteers during her free time, including at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission homeless shelter's residential addiction recovery program.
Nominators say Rodriguez, who will continue her lab work while applying for dual M.D./Ph.D. programs, epitomizes UNLV's motto: Rebels Make It Happen.
Ph.D. in Educational Psychology
For the past six years, Alexandro Velez has taken his experiences in and out of military combat and used them to become an agent of change for Nevada.
Graduating with a Ph.D. in educational psychology and an impressive 3.9 GPA, Alexandro first came to UNLV in 2013 in pursuit of his master’s degree in social work. In the years preceding his arrival on campus, Alexandro had worked to overcome significant health challenges following injuries he sustained as a member of the National Guard serving in Afghanistan.
At the time, doctors said that he might not ever work again. Alexandro, determined to contribute meaningfully to his community, spent the next few years participating in vocational and physical rehabilitation. That determination continued during his studies at UNLV, and his persistence was evident to those who knew him best.
According to family members, “He would spend hours each day at the library studying and refusing to give up.”
In addition to earning his Ph.D., Alexandro has given back to his community by founding the Vegas Veterans Hockey to bring veterans together and help aid in their recovery. He also created Battle Born Mental Health LLC, a company focused on helping veterans with mental health issues and their families. His service and hard work has been recognized by a variety of awards including the UNLV Rebel Award and the UNLV Volunteers Award.
He’s now shifting his determination toward a new goal of becoming a neuropsychologist. Alexandro hopes to one day practice in Nevada and contribute to the ever-growing need for mental health providers in the local community.