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Two Doctoral Students Receive Prestigious McKnight Fellowship

Daniel B. Perez, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Zenith Acosta-Torres, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, have been selected to participate in the Florida Education Fund (FEF) McKnight Doctoral Fellowship program.

“It is an honor and privilege to receive this fellowship from FEF,” said Perez. “This accolade will be used to help fund my research on multifunctional composite structural batteries.”

The FEF McKnight Doctoral Fellowships provide annual tuition up to $5,000 per year to awardees, and an annual stipend of $12,000 for students pursuing doctoral degrees in the fields of arts and sciences, business, engineering, visual and performance arts, health sciences, and nursing at one of nine approved Florida universities.

The program is designed to address the under-representation of African American and Hispanic faculty at colleges and universities in Florida by increasing the number of minorities with doctoral degrees to ensure greater eligibility for teaching at the college and university levels.

Since its establishment in 1984, the FEF’s McKnight Doctoral Fellowship Program has awarded more than 750 fellowships to African Americans and Hispanic students pursuing doctoral degrees. The program boasts more than 80 percent retention rate with more than 500 fellows graduating in an average completion time of 5.5 years.

“I am grateful to the generosity of programs such as the FEF,” said Acosta-Torres. “With the fellowship, I can fully focus on my research which addresses the degeneration of retinal cells and subsequent vision loss.”

Specifically, Acosta-Torres studies conditions that induce the degradation of the retinal ganglion cells – cells in the eye that integrate information from photoreceptors and project it into the brain. “In order to better comprehend and address these health concerns,” explains Acosta-Torres, “I am working on developing retinal organoids derived from human stem cells that can be utilized as a cell source for cellular therapies, model retinal development and tumor formation.”

Perez holds a bachelor’s degrees from the University of Miami in Mechanical Engineering. Acosta-Torres has a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from Florida International University, and a master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Miami, respectively.