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NMSU engineering, math graduate receives GEM, NSF Graduate Research fellowships

CJ Barberan, a recent New Mexico State University graduate from Santa Teresa, New Mexico, has been awarded two prestigious fellowships ? the GEM Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship ? to fund his Ph.D. program and research at Rice University. The probability of receiving both, according to Barberan, who just finished a bachelor?s degree in applied math, is in the single digit percentiles.

This is a portrait of CJ Barberan.
NMSU electrical and computer engineering graduate CJ Barberan has received both a GEM Fellowship and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to fund his Ph.D. program at Rice University in Houston. (NMSU photo by Rosemary Woller)

The applied math degree is Barberan?s second bachelor?s degree from NMSU; he graduated with his electrical engineering bachelor?s degree in May 2013. He remained at NMSU to finish the applied math program, while keeping his electrical engineering skills sharp by taking graduate courses.

?CJ is an excellent student ? one of the top in all of his classes,? said Laura Boucheron, assistant professor in the NMSU Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Barberan?s supervisor. ?He has been a great researcher, working at the level of my other graduate students. He is a very diligent and hard worker. He is an absolute pleasure to work with. All of the faculty who know CJ are thrilled to see him pursuing a Ph.D. and his success in obtaining such prestigious and competitive fellowships.?

The GEM Ph.D. Engineering Fellowship program offers doctoral fellowships to underrepresented minority students who have either completed, are currently enrolled in a master?s in engineering program, or received admittance into a Ph.D. program directly from a bachelor?s degree program, as Barberan has.

GEM partners with employers to provide fellows summer internships, which are an integral part of the GEM Fellowship program. Barberan was surprised when he learned that MIT Lincoln Laboratory had selected him.

?I was really shocked. I never thought Lincoln Labs would hire me,? Barberan said. ?If you look at their GEM Fellows on the website, it?s very rare for them to choose Ph.D. students.?

When Barberan begins his doctoral program at Rice in the fall, he will study electrical engineering, specializing in image processing and machine learning. Barberan?s proposed research will focus on using machine learning to show a controlled evolution of what Alzheimer?s disease can do to patients.

The GEM Fellowship covers tuition and provides a living stipend, while the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship provides a three-year annual stipend of $32,000 per year, along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, which is paid directly to the school.

?Support for a student entering from a bachelor?s directly to a Ph.D. program is generally reserved for the top students admitted at a university. It expresses their confidence that he will be successful in the Ph.D.,? Boucheron said. ?Having a fellowship to support his Ph.D. is huge. It means that CJ (and his adviser) don't have to worry about financial support and CJ can focus on his studies. This is particularly important these days with research funding being so tight. It also gives CJ more flexibility in choosing his dissertation topic since he does not necessarily need to worry about fitting his research results to those of a research grant.?

While Barberan isn?t exactly sure what he will do after he completes his doctoral program in five or six years, he does want to continue research.

?I think I want to be working at a research lab,? he said. ?Right now, it feels odd having taken this extra year at NMSU. I feel like maybe I was losing out on something, but I feel like taking the extra year before I started gave me more in-depth knowledge of what I really want to do.?

The extensive research and outreach completed while at NMSU gave Barberan an edge with his fellowship applications.

?For NSF, they want an all around person ? you have to do really well in research and you have to get good grades,? he said. ?You also have to do really well in internships, and you have to give back to the community.?

While at NMSU, Barberan did several outreach visits to area schools, talking about the University Nanosat Program, or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), in general. He even created an app for the University Nanosat Program, called NMSU University NanoSat Program, which will be available in the iTunes store this month.

Barberan, the first college graduate in his family, encourages other students who hope for funded graduate programs to get involved early to spend lots of time focusing on solid internships and community outreach projects.

?CJ is an excellent role model for many of our native New Mexican students in his pursuit of a higher education. I'm sad to see him go, but am excited to see his future contributions to image processing and machine learning,? Boucheron said.