COVES Alumni

2021 Cohort

Adele Balmer
Institution: Virginia Commonwealth University
Host Office: Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee

Adele is a PhD candidate in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Integrative Life Sciences doctoral program. Originally from the west coast, Adele earned her BS in biology with a focus on ecology from the University of Nevada, Reno, and her MS in biology from Auburn University. While attending Auburn, Adele served as the Graduate Student Association president, the NAGPS southeast legislative coordinator, and received an NSF fellowship to bring science education into underserved schools in rural Alabama. Upon graduation, she worked in Florida as a senior environmental specialist for the DEM within the Office of the Governor. In 2017, Adele returned to school to pursue her doctorate in population ecology. Her dissertation uses a long-term dataset to assess factors influencing the demographic rates of Prothonotary Warblers, with a focus on climate change. She is passionate about effectively communicating science and currently has six publications: four in academic journals, one scientific report to the USFWS, one encyclopedia article, and a book overviewing the federal and state environmental review process for local government stakeholders. Upon completion of her PhD, Adele looks forward to sharing her passion for science and is excited to help educate the next generation of scientists.

Janey Dike
Institution: Virginia Tech
Host Office: Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Division of the Chief Clinical Officer

Janey is a rising fourth-year PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Virginia Tech studying stress and trauma. Prior to joining her current program of study in 2018, Janey received her MPS in Clinical Psychological Science and her BA in Journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research is focused on identifying resiliency factors in the context of complex, interpersonal trauma, investigating how discrimination-related stressors influence trauma outcomes, and exploring long-term outcomes of chronic stress. She has had the opportunity to serve as a student clinician within community mental healthcare settings where she conducts assessments and therapeutic interventions with individuals, groups, and families. These experiences have informed her research and highlighted the need for community-based and systems-level care. Janey’s future aspirations include translating evidence-based research outcomes into policy in order to better serve marginalized populations and bridge gaps in access to care.

Isis Garcia-Rodriguez
Institution: Virginia Commonwealth University
Host Office: Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Office of Recovery Services

Isis Garcia-Rodriguez (she/her/hers) is a rising third-year PhD student in the counseling psychology’s doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Prior to VCU, Isis became a McNair Scholar and received her bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in sociology and health & society at Suffolk University. Her research interests are in the areas of legal status, parent-child relationships, systemic factors (e.g., public policy), immigration, immigration trauma, and overall adolescent health in Latinx mixed-status families. Isis has presented research at multiple national research organizations including NLPA, SRA, SRCD, AAHHE, and APA. She is currently the president of the Latinx Graduate Student Association at VCU where she aims to engage Latinx graduate students to community organizations. Overall, Isis is invested in continuing to serve the Hispanic/Latinx community and contribute through interdisciplinary research, clinical practice, policy, and advocacy.

Chelsea Gray
Institution: George Mason University
Host Office: Office of Virginia Delegate Rodney Willett

Chelsea Gray is a PhD student at George Mason University. She is multidisciplinary, with research interests in individual based modeling, social science, and policy. She is currently developing a model of basking shark behavior in Ireland. She is the president of the Conservation Marketing and Engagement Working Group. She is passionate about science outreach and education.

Tara Illgner
Institution: University of Virginia
Host Office: Joint Commission on Technology and Science

Tara is a third-year graduate student at UVA studying atmospheric chemistry. Her work focuses on Carbon Capture, science-communication, and policy. Her international upbringing taught her four languages and the urgency of addressing preventable disasters through science-communication. Here is some of her recent work: (1) Co-Director of the Science Policy Initiative (SPI), (2) testifying to the Virginia General Assembly regarding Carbon Capture Bill (SB1374) this Spring, (3) writing 3 science-policy memos addressing air pollution injustices and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), (3) publishing 3 Op-Ed’s over the last year, and (4) addressing US Congressional members with UCAR (2019) and AAAS-CASE (2021). She also holds a master’s degree in education, and she spent a few years as a teacher. She is a parent of a son, a daughter, and more recently, a foster-daughter. Outside of her graduate studies, Tara and her family spend time with their pets (two cats and one ferret) and enjoy turning their garage into an informal art gallery filled with paintings and sketches.

Nikita Lad
Institution: George Mason University
Host Office: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

Originally from Mumbai, India, Nikita pursued her bachelor’s degree in microbiology and master’s degree in bioanalytical sciences. She then gained professional experience in Regulatory Compliance for 3 years in India and is currently a second-year PhD candidate at George Mason University in the Environmental Sciences and Public Policy department. Given her background, she was interested in bridging the gap between policy and science. As an avid nature lover, she gained an interest in promoting sustainability through social science research. She is now studying ways to assess sustainability in higher education as well as the challenges faced by various universities to promote sustainability literacy on campus. She has a keen interest in evidence-based policymaking and hopes that her research will aid policymakers to make laws that encourage sustainability literacy and culture within higher education.

Sunil Manandhar
Institution: William & Mary
Host Office: Center for Innovative Technology

Sunil is a PhD candidate in the Department of Computer Science at William & Mary. He is working with ​Dr. Adwait Nadkarni​. His research focuses on the analysis and enforcement of security, safety, and privacy policies in modern operating systems. He is currently building and maintaining frameworks for smart home security and privacy policy analysis. He completed his BSc in Computer Science and Information Technology from St. Xavier’s College in Nepal. Prior to graduate school, he worked as a software engineer at Bajra Technologies and was also the president of the Computer Science and Information Technology Association of Nepal (CSITAN). During his PhD journey, he has had the opportunity to work in the Information Security department at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

Margaret Nagai-Singer
Institution: Virginia Tech
Host Office: Virginia Department of Forestry

Margaret received her BS from the University of Tennessee at Martin in 2018 with a major in Animal Science. During her undergraduate career, she researched the effect of different feeding strategies on piglet health and feed efficiency. She currently is a PhD Student in the Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences program at Virginia Tech. Her project investigates the effect of the immune system on pancreatic and breast cancer, focusing on an immune system protein that functions as a tumor suppressor in a cell-specific manner. Her passion for science stems from its ability to create a more safe, just, and healthy future. Beyond the lab, she is also passionate about policy and advocacy work. Her excitement for and experience in both science and policy inspired her to pursue science policy as a career.

Homa Jalaeian Taghadomi
Institution: Old Dominion University
Host Office: Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources

Homa received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Environmental Science and will complete her PhD in the summer of 2021 from ODU. She is currently working on her PhD dissertation, investigating the rainfall-runoff relationship and mitigating flooding in the coastal watershed area with numerous wetlands and ponds. During the academic year of 2019-2020, she was a research assistant working on a project providing resilience solutions for homeowners (e.g., sea-level rise, impact and adaptation, preparing the properties, and innovative development of ideas for building safely near water). She has also been a teaching assistant for various courses, such as water resources and hydraulics, hydromechanics, and water/wastewater treatment. She has three peer-reviewed published papers to date and others in progress. Also, she received five awards during her graduate program at ODU, including three graduate enhancement awards.

Kelsea Yarbrough
Institution: Norfolk State University
Office of Virginia Senator Jennifer McClellan

Kelsea Yarbrough is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and graduated from Norfolk State University (NSU) with a dual bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Electrical Engineering and Mathematics. Following the completion of her bachelor’s degree, she completed her master’s degree at NSU in Electronics Engineering with a concentration of microelectronics and photonics. Kelsea is currently a PhD candidate at NSU studying Materials Science and Engineering. STEM exposure and representation and energy policy continue to be areas Kelsea works to improve for future generations. She believes science policy has a more direct influence and is the trajectory needed to implement these changes.


2020 Cohort

Ryan Chaban
Institution: William & Mary
Host Office: Dominion Energy Public Policy Department

Originally from Orange County, CA, Ryan received his BSE in Engineering Physics from Case Western Reserve University, and is currently a 3rd-year Physics Ph.D. candidate at William & Mary. He researches plasma physics and fusion energy; specifically, he studies experimental diagnostics and the edge region to better understand how to increase the confinement of fusion plasmas while keeping the reactor from damaging itself. He began with an internship on the DIII-D tokamak in San Diego, CA and his current project involves analyzing fast camera data on the MAST machine in Oxfordshire, UK. Through his education and research, he has come to believe the energy policy and goals established today will be among the most impactful decisions we make to safeguard our future and reduce the impact of climate change. This begins with sound science, engineering, and economically based decisions at the top, and continues with funding science literacy education in our schools.  After graduate school, he hopes to find a career where he can combine his passion for physics, clean energy advocacy, and education.

Sarah Hall
Institution: Virginia Tech
Host Office: Virginia Biotechnology Association

Sarah graduated from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise in 2018 with a BS in biochemistry. After graduating, she worked in a biophysics research laboratory at Vanderbilt for a year, and then began her MS in biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2019. Through her various research experiences, she has worked with DNA repair mechanisms, spectral analyses of variable stars, microtubule dynamics, and is currently developing the use of nanoparticle mediated focused ultrasound to treat metastatic breast cancer. Even though she has a very scientific background, she is very passionate about science communication and science policy. Her ultimate career goal is to work in intellectual property law.

Nicole A. Jefferson
Institution: Virginia State University
Host Office: Office of Virginia Senator Ghazala Hashmi

An avid proponent and practitioner of STEM / STEAM education, Nicole is most honored to serve VA as a COVES Fellow. Having completed her undergraduate studies in Mechanical Engineering Technology, she is pursuing a MS in Computer Science with an emphasis in Education at VSU. As an undergraduate, her passion for and involvement in Science and Technology was multi-faceted, to include having served as Lead Designer for our Formula One Race Car Team, an Eisenhower Fellowship for Magnetic Engine Design, President for Society of Automotive Engineers, and Summer Faculty for the National Congressional Youth Leadership Conference. Currently as a Middle School teacher of Engineering Technology and Co-Founder of OvrActv Imagination (, an Engineering Ideation Consulting Group with a Green-space initiative, her desire is to gain a stronger understanding of our Commonwealth’s public and private industry vision, plan and involvement in STEAM initiatives, while becoming actively engaged in securing our State’s position in the forefront of technological advancements.

Erin Robartes
Institution: University of Virginia
Host Office: Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources

Erin Robartes is a native of Boston, Massachusetts and graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and minors in mathematics and environmental engineering in 2015. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Virginia in the Engineering Systems and Environment Department, pursuing a degree in Civil Engineering. Her research has involved bicycle safety in Virginia, analyzing available crash data sets and collecting statewide data on crashes and bicycle infrastructure. She now works in the Omni-Reality and Cognition Lab developing bicycle and pedestrian simulators for use in behavioral transportation research. She is passionate about transportation as a means to creating equitable, human-centered cities. Erin also leads the Institute of Transportation Engineers student chapter at UVA and is involved with the Graduate Engineering Student Council, and the Society of Women Engineers at UVA.

Nick Walker
Institution: George Mason University
Host Office: Department of Conservation and Recreation – Dam Safety

In 2019 Nick finished his PhD in Environmental Science & Public Policy at George Mason University, he also has a Master’s in Animal Biology from the Universidade Federal de Viçosa. His work combines natural science, social science and culture, so he’s worked in a variety of areas, everything from being a park ranger to sequencing DNA to working at government agencies to providing consulting services for businesses. For him it’s less about technical skills and more about being able to synthesize information and collaborate with everyone. He’s the executive director of a 501(c)3 non-profit called and the president of Journal Editors of America LLC, where he helps scientists from around the world publish their work in academic journals and textbooks. You can download his latest CV from

Sandra Yankah
Institution: Virginia Commonwealth University
Host Office: Department of Health – Office of Health Equity

Sandra received bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology from Western Carolina University’s Honors College in 2014. After graduating, she completed a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Valdosta State University in 2016. She joined the doctoral program in clinical psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2017, where she is currently a rising fourth-year doctoral candidate. Her research falls within the domain of dissemination and implementation science and aims to apply research findings in relevant communities in the most effective way possible. Over the course of her education, she has had the privilege of completing clinical rotations in a variety of settings including community mental health clinics, primary care settings, and interdisciplinary agencies that provide support to children referred to law enforcement. These experiences led her to adopt a more systems-based focus. She believes that policy changes create the most direct and pervasive changes in the lives of those who are systematically disadvantaged. Ultimately, her career goal is to work in a research-oriented position that directly informs federal policy guidelines for the behavioral health system.

Participating Host Offices