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COVES Alumni
2021 COVES Fellows Alumni
2020 COVES Fellows Alumni
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2023 COVES Fellows Alumni


Mohammed Alrezq
Virginia Tech
Mohammed Alrezq is a Ph.D. candidate in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. He holds both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Industrial Engineering. His current research focuses on understanding the success of continuous improvement methodologies in public sector organizations, working closely with his advisor, Dr. Eileen Van Aken. Alrezq has also conducted research in other areas, including data science/analytics and simulation modeling. He has published several conference proceedings and a peer-reviewed journal article. Besides his academic work, he is a team member of the transformational office on campus to conduct continuous improvement initiatives across university enterprises to improve processes and system outcomes. He is an active member of professional societies, including the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers and The American Society for Engineering Management. Alrezq is looking forward to applying his academic skills and interests in science policy to make a meaningful impact.

Shelita Augustus
Norfolk State University
Shelita obtained her B.S. in Chemistry from Norfolk State University (NSU) in May of 2020. During her academic career, she has had the opportunity to gain invaluable research experience as an undergraduate research assistant for various projects funded by the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Shelita is currently a Ph.D. student and graduate research assistant at Norfolk State University for Materials Science and Engineering. Her work within NSU's Space Biology Laboratory entails fabricating neural probes to understand how space radiation impacts cognitive functions.

Juli Dutta
Norfolk State University
Juli Dutta is completing her master’s degree in cybersecurity in the computer science department at Norfolk State University. Her research project focuses on potential threats in the maritime industry. She has examined specific sources of vulnerabilities in the maritime industry including but not limited to humans, offshore and onshore systems, and maritime vessels, then scrutinized through the lens of selected, documented maritime cybersecurity incidents from around the globe. Such findings qualitatively show the extent to which cybersecurity risk threatens the maritime industry and other dependent segments including critical infrastructures. She has completed hundreds of classroom hours in cloud safety, network security and digital forensics, trained how to defend against cybercriminals and how to use digital forensics to identify hackers and mitigate the likelihood of successful attacks.

Zhenyi Huang
George Mason University
Zhenyi Huang is a Ph.D. student in Statistical Science at George Mason University with a focus on developing advanced, data-driven algorithms for automated detection and extraction of global and local structures of protein landscape. Zhenyi earned a Master of Science in Statistics from the University of Connecticut and a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and Physics from Wheaton College, where he was awarded the H.M. Pastra-Landis Prize in Physics and was a member of Alpha Beta Kappa. Zhenyi has worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, providing tutoring and grading for introductory and advanced statistics courses, as well as a Physics Algorithm Engineer in Beijing, China. In his free time, Zhenyi enjoys playing violin and was a member of the Great Woods Symphony Orchestra at Wheaton College.

Kaushal Kafle
William & Mary
Kaushal Kafle is a Ph.D. student in the department of computer science at William & Mary. He is advised by Dr. Adwait Nadkarni. His main research interests are in understanding the security and privacy threats in modern operating systems, and building tools that help in their mitigation. His research has been published in various conferences such as ACM and IEEE. His paper on the study of security vulnerabilities in smart home platforms won the ‘best paper award’ at ACM CODASPY’19, and also received wide media coverage. Currently, he is the lead graduate student of the Secure Platforms Lab, supervised by Dr. Nadkarni. Through the lab, he actively engages in the mentorship of undergraduate students, as well as in community outreach programs. He was part of the Emerging Scholar Series at William & Mary, where he presented his research on the security of smart homes to the Williamsburg community. Due to the tangled nature of science and policy, Kaushal believes that the active participation of both sides is vital to increase the impact of science and to create effective policies. He is looking forward to working as a COVES Fellow over the summer.

Jasmine Lewis
Virginia Tech
Jasmine is a Ph.D. student studying biological psychology at Virginia Tech. Before coming to Virginia Tech, she received her B.S. in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her M.S. in Biomedical Sciences from Liberty University. Her research interests include the effects of childhood trauma and stress on health outcomes. More specifically, she is interested in the immunological and genetic effects of traumatic stress in youth who have been exposed to violence either directly or indirectly. She hopes to use her research to further the understanding of the impact of traumatic events on youth development overall and inform prevention/intervention efforts.

Sarah Morton
Virginia Commonwealth University
Sarah is a rising fourth-year doctoral student studying health psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). She grew up in a small rural community about 40 miles outside of Richmond, VA and earned her B.S. degree in psychology from VCU. She enjoyed working with several different community intervention research programs before moving to Michigan in 2014 to pursue an M.S. in clinical psychology at Eastern Michigan University. After graduation, she worked in private practice as a licensed psychotherapist and autism evaluation consultant for several years before moving back to Virginia and joining her current program. Sarah’s current research focuses broadly on exploring the associations between patient-provider interactions, medical distrust, and health disparities in pediatric and young adult illness populations. She is passionate about the translation of health research into sustainable community-focused programs and health policies, and looks forward to further developing her science policy skills as a 2023 COVES policy fellow.

Geovani Muñoz
Virginia Commonwealth University
Geovani Muñoz is a Ph.D. student in Counseling Psychology going into his third year of study at Virginia Commonwealth University. Prior to attending VCU, Geovani was a McNair Scholar and received his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Political Science from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His research interests are in the area of addressing mental health disparities among racial-ethnic minoritized communities, improving mental health utilization, investigating systemic factors (e.g., public policy) impacting mental health access, and substance use.

Nishat Ara Nipa
Old Dominion University
Nishat is a first-year Ph.D. student at Old Dominion University's Department of Modeling & Simulation. Prior to starting this program, she earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's degree in wireless communication and signal processing. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center, where she is supervised by Dr. Sachin Shetty. Her research interests are diverse and include Artificial Intelligence (AI), Deep Learning, and Machine Learning applications, with a focus on trustworthy AI. She has always enjoyed performing sanity checks on her work, so evaluating uncertainties in AI systems is something that piques her attention. She believes we’re going through a transformative era where the emergence of AI is changing the way we look at life and it’s imperative to integrate policy to regulate AI for the greater good of humankind. She is excited to be a part of the COVES fellowship 2023 program to expand her thoughts in this field and learn more about policymaking.

Teri Ramey
Christopher Newport University
Teri is currently working to finish her Master of Science in Environmental Science at Christopher Newport University, where she is conducting research on the use of insects as bioindicators for the impact of urbanization in Newport News, Virginia. She previously earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Old Dominion University and an Associate of Science in Biology from Tidewater Community College and plans to begin a Ph.D. program in Integrated Life Sciences at the University of Georgia this fall. Her academic focus has been on evidence-based decision making, sustainability analysis, and creating mitigation and adaptation plans for areas impacted by climate change. Teri has gained valuable experience as an Adjunct Supervising Instructor for introductory biology labs, a Lab Manager, and a Graduate Assistant while at Christopher Newport University. She is a member of the Graduate Student Advisory Council and one of two serving Student members of the Graduate Council at CNU. She is passionate about environmental science and is eager to work with local policymakers to make a positive impact on the community through her research and the COVES Fellowship.

John Reilly Stiles
George Mason University
Reilly Stiles is a Master's Student in the Climate Science program at GMU. He also attended GMU as an undergraduate where he received a B.S. in Atmospheric Sciences. He is currently working with the Virginia Climate Center as a Graduate Research Assistant through GMU. His research focuses on flooding in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the implications of climate change relating to this issue, with the main regions of interest being the Potomac River and James River. He also has experience with modeling the co-benefits of fossil fuel emission reductions at the county level of Virginia, which was the basis for a moderate-scale research project he contributed to with the Virginia Climate Center.

Thanh Nhan Duc Tran
University of Virginia
Duc is currently a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the University of Virginia. His research, supervised by Dr. Venkataraman Lakshmi and supported by the National Science Foundation, focuses on Water Resources Management using Remote Sensing techniques to enable sustained collaboration and support equitable decision-making and solution adoption on risks of flooding and saltwater intrusion. Before commencing his doctoral studies in 2022, Duc earned his MSc in Hydroinformatics and Water Management, a program fully funded by the European Union through the Erasmus scheme, which enabled him to study in four different European countries. In his current doctoral research, Duc examines the consequences of extreme weather events on human life and the environment, aiming to inform decision-making processes and assist policymakers in environmental management. His work has been presented at prestigious conferences, such as the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in 2022, and published in well-known journals such as the Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies, Remote Sensing, and Water. Duc maintains that active collaboration with policymakers is crucial for driving positive change and enhancing the influence of scientific research.

Dreon Wheatley-Owens
Virginia State University
Dreon Wheatley-Owens is a first-year M.S. student studying Computer Science at Virginia State University and will graduate in August 2023. Dreon completed his undergraduate degree at Bloomfield College and received his B.S. in Computer Science. During his time at Bloomfield College, he worked as a Computer Science Tutor. As a tutor, Dreon mentored students that attended sessions held throughout each week of the semester. The classes Dreon tutored for consisted of Programming 1, Programming 2, and Data Structures. At Virginia State University, Dreon is currently working on his thesis in which he looks into Frustration detection. His research consists of exploring the reasons behind the difficulty in learning programming concepts and the application thereof. Outside of academia, Dreon will be starting a full-time position as a Systems Engineer in the fall.


2022 COVES Fellows Alumni


Amit Seal Ami is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Computer Science, William & Mary. He is researching Security and Software Engineering with his co-advisors, Dr. Adwait Nadkarni and Dr. Denys Poshyvanyk. Through his research, he creates systematic soundness evaluation frameworks that can help improve software security testing tools. His recent works on this topic have been accepted and published in top-tier Security Venues such as ACM Transactions on Privacy and Security (TOPS) and IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (S&P). Furthermore, he received CoVA CCI Dissertation fellowship for his research. In addition, he investigates the impacts of unsound security tools in software and services. Previously, he has worked as a Lecturer at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and as a Software Engineer in M&H Informatics (IQVIA), Bangladesh. Amit believes that active engagement with policymakers is instrumental in making positive changes and increasing the impact of science.




Jennifer is a rising fifth-year Ph.D. candidate studying clinical psychology at Virginia Tech. Prior to graduate school, Jennifer completed her undergraduate work at Binghamton University and then worked as a clinical research assistant at the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Jennifer’s research focuses on understanding and overcoming barriers to accessing mental healthcare for autistic children and their families, particularly in underserved rural areas such as southwest Virginia. Her work has specifically focused on novel methods of service delivery in rural regions, such as mobile clinics and telehealth. In addition to research, Jennifer has the opportunity to work as a graduate clinician, delivering low-cost therapy and assessment services to children and families in the local community. Jennifer is committed to a research career in the dissemination and implementation of evidence-based mental health services into community settings, by connecting researchers, providers, and policymakers toward a common goal of equitable access to mental health services.



Denise Daniels is currently a first-year M.S. student studying computer science at Virginia State University and will graduate in August 2022. Denise completed her undergraduate degree at Bloomfield College and received a B.S. in Computer Science. During her time at Bloomfield College, she was a member of the McNair Scholars program, the Bloomfield College Honors Program, Student Representative on the Bloomfield College Honors Council, and President of the Bloomfield College Honors Program. At Virginia State University, Denise has worked as a graduate teaching assistant. She has also conducted her thesis research which will be published at the 24Th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction conference proceedings. Her research looks at potential issues associated with virtual learning and experimentally tests the possibility of using technology-generated course content.  Aside from academia, Denise has worked as a web developer handling updates, testing, and adding new functionality for company websites. She was also an HSCC Instructor for the New Jersey Chapter of the Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA), where she has taught and mentored high school students for the BDPA National High School Computer Competition. Denise further worked as a Tech fellow for CodePath, a non-profit organization that offers free coding classes, coaching, and career help to college students interested in pursuing jobs in technology.



Franklin (Frankie) Edwards is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health graduate program at Virginia Tech. Prior to joining his current program of study in 2018, Frankie received his B.S. in Experimental Neuroscience and Psychology from Virginia Tech, Blacksburg. Frankie is a first-generation college student from southwest Virginia, and he is passionate about translating research to under-resourced communities and underserved populations. In his current doctoral research, he uses high-fidelity manikins and opioid overdose scenarios to measure rescuers’ resuscitation skills including naloxone administration (an antidote for opioid overdose), ventilations, and chest compressions. Furthermore, he is working with an authorized comprehensive harm reduction program (otherwise known as a syringe exchange program) to test the effectiveness of an adaptive just-in-time intervention to increase the presence and administration of naloxone in contexts familiar to people who use or inject opioids. Apart from his research, Frankie has effectively collaborated with other professional students and his campus administration to increase resources for graduate students and co-led the production of several science communication events including ComSciCon, a nationally known science communication conference that originated at Harvard University. Specifically, Frankie wants to apply his translational research knowledge and experience working with community leaders to support the expansion of authorized syringe exchange programs (and other means of mitigating the overdose epidemic) in the Commonwealth of Virginia.


Alissa Ganser is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. Alissa works with freshwater mussels, an extremely endangered aquatic fauna. Her research encompasses genetics, physiology, population demographics, reproduction, and life-history of freshwater mussels, which she has worked with for over a decade. Previously, Alissa was an adjunct instructor, teaching human anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and ecology classes. She also held a clinical medical assistant certification (CCMA) and taught phlebotomy, urinalysis, and clinical laboratory classes for students enrolled in a CCMA program. Alissa hopes to combine her interests in aquatic science and ecology with her interests in human health in her future career. Alissa is originally from Minnesota and enjoys spending her time reading and playing with her cats and thirteen-year-old cichlid fish.



Xu is a Ph.D. student in the Information Technology program at the College of Engineering and Computing of George Mason University. He is broadly interested in studying decision guidance systems, digital products and markets, technology adoption and entrepreneurship. Before coming to Mason, Xu received his M.S. in Information Systems from the University of Maryland, College Park. He has also had several years of professional experience across multiple industries both in the U.S. and back in China. Being a close observer of how modern information technologies influence businesses and societies worldwide, Xu is committed to exploring innovative ways of bringing the most benefits out of technologies to the people in this world.



Nathan Holland is a third-year Ph.D. student in Mechanical Engineering at Old Dominion University (ODU). He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology and an M. Eng. in Acoustics from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). Nathan has served as an adjunct instructor and Director of the School of Engineering and Technology summer bridge program at Hampton University (HU) and as a lead Graduate Teaching Assistant for the Materials Science Laboratory at ODU. Having passed his candidacy exam, Nathan is approaching the completion of his proposal and is commencing biomechanical-focused dissertation work. Nathan is invested in STEM education including competency, innovation, retention, and support for historically marginalized groups.



Alie is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Alie earned her B.S. degree in Geology from Georgia State University and her M.S. in Earth and Environmental Studies from Montclair State University. She began exploring her interest in science-based policymaking through an internship with the United Nations Environment Programme in 2018, during which she covered hearings on such topics as sustainable fisheries and challenges faced by Indigenous communities in the Arctic. At UVA, her research aims to reconstruct the behavior of Antarctica’s least stable glaciers through recent millennia using marine sediment cores. Alie’s interest in Earth’s icy regions stems from the fact that what happens at the poles does not stay at the poles – changes to these frozen parts of the planet are affecting people in coastal communities at all latitudes. She believes policy that integrates a range of scientific disciplines and considers the disproportionate effects of climate change on marginalized communities is key, and she looks forward to exploring these ideas at the state level as a 2022 COVES fellow.


Kyle L. Mason, M.S., of Richmond, Virginia is a Health Psychology Doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Kyle engages in research and scholarship at the intersections of health disparities (e.g., violence exposure, psychological distress, and chronic illness), inequities in healthcare (e.g., discrimination and erasure), and deleterious and efficacious health behaviors (e.g., healthcare underutilization and treatment adherence) that have implications for public health. Prior to their beginning graduate school at VCU, they earned a B.A. in Psychology from Mary Baldwin University. Kyle’s commitment to and advocacy of diversity, equity, and inclusion in research, policy, governance, and service was manifested in their appointment to the Virginia LGBTQ+ advisory board by Governor Ralph Northam in July 2021, and being elected to serve as its inaugural chair in the Fall of 2021. Their aspirations to pursue professional pathways whereby they are able to provide leadership to local, state, federal, and/or global public health research teams in understanding the embodied (e.g., psychological and physiological) response that social oppression elicits are bound up in their commitment to ensuring that members of the public from all demographic populations are represented in science and visible in policies that are said to ensure the protection of the public’s welfare. Kyle values the sacredness that exists in the embodiment of identity and health, which is visible in the ways that they embrace and affirm the identities of all. The identity that they find unlimited joy, delight, pride, and fulfillment in is in being a Kycle to their niece (Audrey) and nephew (Ethan).



Elena Meyer is a third-year Ph.D. candidate from Virginia Commonwealth University in the Integrative Life Science program. At VCU, they are studying evolutionary biology focused on computational and genetic topics with research focusing on the reproductive systems of angiosperms. At VCU, they were also elected and served as the president of the Integrative Life Science Student Association. Originally from Woodbridge, VA, they went to college at New College of Florida in Sarasota, Florida. At New College, they earned their B.A. in Biology with a minor in Chinese Language and Culture from New College of Florida and developed a strong interest in botany. After receiving an NSF-REU, they worked in a conservation genetics lab at Missouri Botanical Gardens. Using data from that project, they have recently published their first first-author paper on the endangered plant species Polygala lewtonii. Outside of science, they like thrifting, working on DIY projects, and working on growing a patio garden of vegetables and native plants.



Nicholas is a rising fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at George Mason University. His long-term research interests involve investigating large databases for molecular signatures and pathways that contribute to the development of human disease. The goal of which is to establish and improve the resources available for translational medicine. He embraces a bench-to-bedside approach, especially in the context of diagnostics and drug discovery. His current research applies these concepts to Parkinson’s disease. Before serving as a COVES fellow, he was an NSF fellow working in an interdisciplinary team that engaged with community stakeholders to create fundamental research and translational innovations aimed at challenges related to disability. These experiences, along with his training in regulatory science, have highlighted the need for community-informed decision-making in research and policy.



Lacee is a first-year M.S. student in Electronics Engineering at Norfolk State University. Originally from Houston, Texas, she attended Northwestern State University where she received a B.S. in Electronics Engineering with concentrations in electronics and biomedical engineering. She played basketball all four years of her undergraduate career and received a basketball scholarship offer from Norfolk State University where she was able to complete the last year of her basketball career.



Casie was raised 20 miles south of Virginia’s capital in the small city of Colonial Heights. She attended Vanderbilt University where she was involved in the Undergraduate Political Science Association, the Vanderbilt International Relations Association, V-Squared engineering mentoring, and was a member of the Model United Nations travel team. She also assisted in research in the Departments of Geriatric Medicine and Allergy, Pulmonary, and Critical Care Medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She earned a B.S. in 2021 with a double major in Engineering Science and Medicine, Health, and Society. She then began graduate study in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University where she intends to earn a Ph.D. studying the protective effects of extracellular matrix nanoparticles on acute lung injury. During graduate school, Casie has become a member of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Society for Biomaterials and has enjoyed presenting her work at these groups’ annual meetings. Casie is looking forward to combining her personal and academic interests working in science policy this summer.



Haoyu (Hazel) Sun grew up in Beijing, China, and arrived in the U.S. at the age of 18. She received her B.S. in Biochemistry from Bates College, ME in 2019. During the 4 years, Hazel participated in Chemistry research that focuses on developing and validating small molecules that could improve long-term memory formation and consolidation caused by Pitt Hopkins Syndrome. Since then, Hazel continued her pursuit of biochemical science at the University of Virginia. Now a rising 4th-year Ph.D. candidate, Hazel focuses her research on developing live-cell monitoring probes for protein tyrosine phosphatases using chemical biology tools. During her career, Hazel has published as a co-author in ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letter and presented twice at ACS National Meetings. Her goal in life is to make contributions to benefit society and the human race through the lens of science, whether via developing life-saving drugs or advising policymaking that truly benefits the community.



Yezi is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech where she works with Dr. Benjamin Gill in the Biogeochemistry Lab. In her research, she utilizes geochemical proxies to understand paleoenvironmental changes and how these changes affected the evolution or extinction of life. Yezi is passionate about science communication and advocacy. She hopes to apply her research and communication skills in real-world policy advising.

2021 COVES Fellows Alumni

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 COVES Fellows Alumni

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