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Illinois graduate student wins Ford Fellowship

Vanessa Rivera-QuinonesVanessa Rivera-Quinones of Carolina, Puerto Rico, a second-year PhD student in Mathematics, is one of sixty students nationwide to win a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship. Ford Fellowships support outstanding graduate students who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education or who intend to use diversity as a key component of their teaching and research.

Rivera-Quinones is developing mathematical models to better understand the evolution of virulent diseases. “Mathematical models,” she said, “can provide insight on the driving factors behind the distribution and prevalence of an infection, which can help inform public health interventions.” Her current project models the epidemiology of a lethal fungal parasite in Daphnia dentrifera, commonly known as the waterflea. She wants to better understand how community ecology, including conflicts among competitors and predators, shapes disease spread among hosts.  

As a Latina woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, Rivera-Quinones is dedicated to helping other underrepresented students succeed.  She is particularly active in STEM-Fem Alliance, a U. of I. student organization she co-founded to empower underrepresented women in science, technology, engineering, and math.  “I look forward to the day when diversity in STEM, including ethnic, gender, and many other modes of difference, is no longer an aspiration but a reality,” Rivera-Quinones said.

“The Ford Fellowship is perhaps the premier graduate fellowship dedicated to promoting diversity in the academy,” said Ken Vickery, director of the Graduate College Office of External Fellowships.  “Awards go only to students who are conducting research at the very highest level while, at the same, time making the academy more inclusive. I heartily congratulate Vanessa on the years of hard work that factored into this honor.”

The fellowship provides three years of support, including a $25,000 annual stipend, a full tuition waiver, and access to Ford Fellow Regional Liaisons, a network of former Ford fellows who mentor and support current fellows.

The following four U. of I. students were accorded honorable mention: Arielle Brown (Counseling Psychology), Isis Rose (Anthropology), Ross Peterson (Food Science and Human Nutrition), and Jessica Young (English). 

For additional information on the Ford Foundation’s fellowship programs, see