NSF graduate fellowship winner reflects on successes at UC Santa Cruz

Valery Ortiz is a recipient of the 2023 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program grant, supporting her graduate research at the Scripps Research Institute. (Photo provided by Valery Ortiz.)

Group photo of students, faculty and chancellor

Ortiz received the 2023 Chancellor's Award. (Photo by Emily Reynolds)

Valery Ortiz, who majored in biochemistry and molecular biology, is one of more than a thousand students who graduated with a B.S. from the Physical & Biological Sciences division this year. However, her achievements and experiences as a transfer student at UC Santa Cruz make her unique. In addition to receiving both the 2023 Chancellor’s Award and the divisional Dean’s Award for her senior thesis, Ortiz is also a recipient of the 2023 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) grant, supporting her graduate studies and research at the Scripps Research Institute.

The NSF-GRFP is a competitive five-year fellowship with a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. The program seeks to broaden participation in science and engineering of underrepresented groups and ensures the quality, vitality, and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States. 

Additionally, Ortiz received a 2023 Dean's Award from her incoming Ph.D. institution, Scripps Research Institute, as well as awards for outstanding research presentations at two national SACNAS (Society of Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) conferences in 2019 and 2022.

Ortiz transferred to UC Santa Cruz from Monterey Peninsula College. She quickly got involved in the STEM Diversity Research Programs by becoming a Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) scholar and the outreach coordinator for the UCSC SACNAS chapter. She was also a guest speaker for workshops hosted by the STEM Diversity Programs aimed at demystifying the NSF-GRFP application process and she shared her experience participating in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at a different institution. 

“The STEM Diversity team is incredible,” Ortiz said. “They really help students to believe in themselves and to strive for success. I would highly recommend students to apply to be part of this wonderful community.”

In the realm of research, Ortiz worked in Professor of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology Needhi Bhalla's lab. She worked on projects that involved investigating chromosome dynamics using Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) as a model to visualize meiotic progression in different mutant conditions to investigate meiotic protein function.

“It was phenomenal,” Ortiz said. “The lab is full of scientists who are caring, passionate and in the pursuit of diversifying science.” 

Beginning this fall, Ortiz will pursue a Ph.D. in Chemical and Biological Sciences at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California. 

As for her long-term career goals, Ortiz said she also wants to help more students enter research fields. 

Besides completing my Ph.D. program, I also want to create an avenue for minority and disabled students to pursue research as a career.”

Ortiz said she couldn’t have accomplished her achievements without her supporters. 

“I appreciate the guidance and unconditional support of my friends, family, and mentors, including Dr. Bhalla and lab members, Dr. Russo, Dr. Turner, Yuli, Xingci, Dani, and the STEM Diversity community. I’d also like to extend a huge thank you to my funding sources, including the Karl S. Pister Leadership Opportunity Award, Simpson Physical Science Fund Fellowship, and the NIH-MARC program.”

Congratulations to all the 2023 graduates at UC Santa Cruz!