UW–Madison Ph.D. candidate receives HHMI Gilliam Fellowship
October 4, 2017
by Jack Kelly
In August, UW–Madison Ph.D. candidate Sebastien Ortiz was one of 39 scholars nationwide selected to receive the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Gilliam Fellowship.
The Gilliam Fellowship is for “outstanding students who have the potential to be real leaders in science,” according to David Asai, senior director for science education at HHMI. Each fellow will receive an annual award of $46,000 — including a stipend, an institutional allowance and a training allowance — for up to three years.
The program’s goal is to “prepare a diverse and highly-trained scientific workforce that can help develop the next generation of scientists,” according to an HHMI statement. This a goal that Ortiz shares.
As a high schooler, the Biochemist served as a volunteer for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, doing outreach to get students of color interested in STEM fields.
“I worked for an organization called The Community Science Workshop,” Ortiz said. “Essentially, the program was developed to try and reach out to the community and try to get kids interested in science. And, because there is a large Hispanic population in Washington D.C., and a large African American population, the program really focused on trying to get those students interested in STEM.”
Upon graduation from high school, Ortiz attended the University of Virginia, where he earned a degree in chemistry in May 2015. Presently, Ortiz is a dissertator in UW–Madison’s Department of Biomolecular Chemistry.
“I study a fungal pathogen called Cryptococcus neoformans … that causes hundreds of thousands of deaths a year,” the researcher said. “Mostly in sub-Saharan African, and in mostly immuno-compromised individuals.”
Ortiz explained that fungal pathogens are more likely to cause infections in people with weak immune systems because they are opportunistic pathogens. Through his lab work, he is hoping to determine what prompts the illness-causing spores of Cryptococcus neoformans to germinate, and in turn finds ways to prevent the disease.
However, the Gilliam Fellowship will allow Ortiz to do more than just continue his research. It will allow him to continue doing outreach to underrepresented communities.
“I have reached out and will probably start doing some tutoring for high school Hispanic students [in the near future],” he said.
Ortiz is interested in starting a group for Hispanic STEM graduate students at the university. He explained that graduate school is a difficult time for all students, and that it is important to have support systems with people whom with you can more closely relate.
The Gilliam Fellowship will also afford Ortiz the opportunity to network with other fellows around the country, something that he believes is very important.
“[The Gilliam Fellowship] motivates you more to get in contact with other students that are doing similar things,” he said. Ortiz says he intended to engage in outreach as he launched his career, and that networking with other Gilliam fellows provides an “extra benefit.”