Category: Student Spotlight

Sandhiya Thiagarajan standing in classroom

Shaping the Future with Sandhiya Thiagarajan

Sandhiya standing in the Koh Laboratory
Sandhiya standing in the Koh Laboratory, Shot by Matthew Wood

“What if I told you concepts in Marvel movies can exist today?”

These are the first words out of Sandhiya Thiagarajan’s mouth when asked about her cutting-edge research with Dr. Amanda Koh, Assistant Professor for chemical and biological engineering. Sandhiya, originally from the beach town of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, first met Dr. Koh in 2019 at a recruiting event in her home country.

Drawn to Dr. Koh’s influential passion for women in STEM, Sandhiya left the gorgeous beaches, temples, culture and home to pursue a PhD from The University of Alabama under Dr. Koh’s mentorship.

Dr. Koh operates the Koh Laboratory, a laboratory in the illustrious Shelby Hall named in her likeness. The Koh Laboratory focuses on engineering soft materials and material interfaces to enable new stretchable electronics, soft robotics, smart devices and porous materials. The lab emphasizes that as the needs and applications of devices in these areas become more complex and advanced, it is no longer enough to rely on single-function, bulk materials. By harnessing the unique capabilities provided by interfaces, the Koh Laboratory designs smart, responsive, multifunctional materials that are key to creating robust, practical and adaptive systems.

True to the nature of the Koh Laboratory, Sandhiya focuses on saving lives through her research of magnetic smart liquids. Suspended in an oil-like substance, these revolutionary liquids harden into a dense, peanut-butter-like material when activated and reset back to their original form when not in use. The odd traits of smart liquids make them seem other-worldly, or even out of a Marvel Movie. The goal of Sandhiya’s research is to find a way to make smart liquids stable and rust-free for longer so they can be used for stabilizing buildings during earthquakes.

Sandhiya’s research is particularly interesting considering India’s history with earthquakes. Just last year, Chennai, India was hit by an earthquake which is just one in a long line of earthquakes that have hit India ranging from devastating to relatively minor. India sits on a tectonic plate which leads to a high frequency and intensity of earthquakes, but earthquakes wreak havoc globally with very few recent inventions to prevent structural damage.

Because of Dr. Koh and The University of Alabama, Sandhiya could revolutionize earthquake protection. The liquids have been around since the early 2000s. The magnetorheological fluids

can be found in the suspension of the 2002 model of the Cadillac Seville STS and more recently, in the suspension of the second-generation Audi TT. Many have theorized that using these fluids for earthquakes as a damper system would work, but the scale and staying power that Sandhiya is moving towards could soon make that dream a reality. Sandhiya has published two research papers alongside Dr. Koh during her tenure on campus that focus on her research on magnetorheological fluids.

“They should be in the building for 10-20 years.” she mentioned, “I cannot walk in and say, ‘please move your building because I need to change the liquid.’”

Sandhiya working in the Koh Laboratory
Sandhiya working in the Koh Laboratory, Shot by Matthew Wood

Since enrolling at The University of Alabama, Sandhiya has done nothing but rave about her experience so far. From “the best lab” she has ever worked in, to the weather and the people she’s met, Sandhiya said, “I have only experienced the best at UA. Not great, not good, the best.” She goes on to talk about the faculty and staff and mentions, “people here are so kind and want you to succeed. They are great at listening and helping you with anything you need.”

When asked about her future, Sandhiya, like many others, has not quite decided. She said, “maybe stay at UA and teach or stay close to Alabama. I love the environment here and the people so much.” She closed the conversation with a note to people interested in the University by saying “Come experience it for yourself. You’ll feel yourself at home and grow yourself here.”

Taking on Capitol Hill with Cameryn Blackmore

Cameryn Blackmore standing with the sky behind her in a superhero pose
Photo Credit: Matthew Wood, Strategic Communications

TUSCALOOSA, Ala., Jan 13, 2021Cameryn Blackmore is on the go. She is probably traveling as you read this. As she sat down for her interview, she had just returned to Tuscaloosa from her hometown in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and would hop on a flight to Washington, D.C. soon after we finished. Born to lead, Cameryn received her PhD in political science from The University of Alabama in December 2021 and has already taken on Capitol Hill in D.C.

Confidence exudes from Cameryn as she discusses her new normal. She recently accepted a fellowship position with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation under the National Racial Equity Initiative Fellowship. “I have huge shoes to fill,” Cameryn mentioned. “This fellowship is named in the memory of Congressman John R. Lewis, who was essential to the civil rights movement.”

The first month of her fellowship involves working in U.S. Representative Marilyn Strickland’s office as a legislative assistant and will spend the second month doing research for the foundation. As she opened up about the fellowship, Cameryn said, “I love this opportunity because it gives me a chance to get exposed to policy, but also lets me maintain my identity as a scholar.”

This is just the second year for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to have this fellowship position, and they are relying on Cameryn and her peers to grow the program from within. The fellowship is heavily interested in connecting people with the foundation and ensuring the lives of black citizens are being elevated on the federal level. They plan to host events throughout the year and currently host a yearly summit that focuses on criminal justice, healthcare, economic development and education. “Next year, town hall meetings will be hosted across the country to have conversations about what needs to be addressed at the national level,” Cameryn said.

It makes sense that part of Cameryn’s new role is connecting people together. Her network is one of the biggest pieces of Cameryn’s story. Her ambition is infectious, and she seems to create a sphere of influence wherever she goes. “I tell all incoming grad students and I tell all undergrad students that are interested in grad school and even in their careers – build a community,” she said.

Cameryn began networking before she even officially stepped foot on campus. She visited The University of Alabama to see her sister, who was a student. On a whim, she stopped by the political science office and realized this was the place she wanted to be. She constantly credits the people around her for her success as well. Cameryn mentioned, “Always knowing that I had a support system that I could lean back on was very important in making sure that I matriculated through the process successfully.”

“Everyone thinks the university is so big, and it is, but the circles overlap so much so you can meet one person who’s connected to another person,” Cameryn said. “These people may help you fund your degree or may help you get onto a research project.”

Her circles led to an impressive resume during her tenure at the university. She was a member of the African American Graduate Student Association, a Southern Board of Education Scholar, on the Graduate Student Association Executive Board and a valuable member of the Tide Together program.

Cameryn finished with some advice. “Getting your PhD is hard no matter where you go because you’re making the transition from being a consumer of knowledge to being a producer of knowledge,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need because you’re full of pride and be the answer for someone when they need help.”

These two mantras have helped her establish an incredible network, and her impressive work ethic has vaulted her to where she is today. Cameryn is not sure what is next for her after her fellowship ends, but one thing is for sure – her next step will be remarkable.

Jeremy Smith sitting at a grand piano holding a pencil, seemingly pondering his next composition

Bookmarks in the Life of Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith sitting at a grand piano holding a pencil, seemingly pondering his next composition
Photo Credit: Matthew Wood, Strategic Communications

TUSCALOOSA, Ala., Nov 2, 2021 一 Jeremy Smith has a unique way of weaving a story. Recently, Jeremy sat at a coffee shop recounting the story of his life. Over an hour, he divulged a remarkable retrospective of perseverance, empowerment and insatiable drive. The story is hypnotic and winding, and just as suddenly as you realize you’re off the path, Jeremy will pin it to a decisive moment in the grand story. Or, as he likes to call them, bookmarks.

Jeremy arrived on campus at The University of Alabama in August pursuing his doctoral degree in music composition. He brings with him an incredible professional history, having already studied under heavily decorated professors, took part in highly competitive residencies and has already created works that, in a vacuum, would place his career considerably ahead of schedule. The works range from a ballet to a mass to a pocket opera, and more marching band arrangements than he can count.

These accomplishments are remarkable on their own, but to fully appreciate them, you must start from the beginning.

The northwest tip of Alabama is home to an area known as “The Shoals,” which comprises three small towns tucked along the banks of the winding Tennessee River. The Shoals have a knack for inspiring talented musicians, and locals have made a habit of mentioning there must be something in the water. Legends such as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and Paul Simon can attribute some of their success to recording their greatest hits in this tiny corner of Alabama. Jeremy grew up in Tuscumbia, Alabama, the smallest of the three towns, and graduated from Muscle Shoals High School, where he admits he wasn’t a great student. However, his high school was a titan in the concert percussion world, and Jeremy flourished within the program.

“I had a year and a half long stretch where I didn’t pass a single class.”

Right across the river, The Shoals is also home to the oldest university in Alabama, where Jeremy found himself after he graduated high school.

“Undergrad was…long,” Jeremy said. Likely because he stretched it over an eight year period. Jeremy enrolled in college in fall 2010, seeking a degree in music education. He finished his first semester with a 0.27 GPA.

His second semester wasn’t better. He continued to forgo classes and assignments. Jeremy said, “I had a year and a half long stretch where I didn’t pass a single class or, it’s closer to two years I didn’t pass a single class at all.” The university allowed community members to join their marching band, therefore in the fall of his sophomore year, Jeremy decided to only participate in marching band before re-enrolling in the spring semester.

In what felt like his last chance, Jeremy returned to school under academic probation and took on part-time status taking Physics 101 along with concert percussion in spring 2012. It cost him $3,000. Unfortunately, no motivation followed him back to college. Jeremy noted, “I didn’t go to class at all and didn’t do any of my homework, and my professor pulled me aside and said ‘You’ve missed too many classes to pass this course at this point. I’ll give you one more shot, but if you miss one more class, I’m going to fail you.’”

It was the wake-up call Jeremy needed. For the first time, Jeremy felt like he rounded a corner and really committed himself to accomplishing a passing grade. “What seemed like the entire semester for me was more like four weeks,” he said. “I did all the homework, went to all the classes, I started doing well. Until we had a test and I overslept and missed it, and he failed me.”

“I was basically squatting in a house with no power.”

During this time, Jeremy lived in a house near campus with one of his best friends. The homeowner was in Afghanistan serving in the military, and the owner’s brother oversaw the property. The house wasn’t for rent and had been empty for years, but Jeremy and his friend liked it and begged the brother to let them rent it. Jeremy recalled, “The front door was the only way to get in. There was a back door, but it was boarded up, and I was in the back of the house, so if there was a fire or something, then I would’ve been dead.”

Jeremy’s lack of motivation started creeping into other parts of his life. He and his friend stopped paying rent, and one cold day in December the power went out. “I was basically squatting in a house with no power,” he said. “We hadn’t paid rent in like four months and (the landlord) just never really said anything. I would charge my laptop at school and then come back home and would watch Netflix on my neighbor’s Wi-Fi under every blanket I owned until I fell asleep. It was rough.”

When his spring semester of sophomore year ended, Jeremy had already chosen to not make payments on his loan and he failed Physics 101. He also failed his sophomore percussion proficiency exams. With music being the forefront of his life, things were looking grim.

In the coffee shop Jeremy paused and took a sip of coffee, reflecting on one of the most pivotal moments in his life. “When I failed all of those classes and flunked out of school, I also owed the school $3,000,” Jeremy said. “It became an almost insurmountable thing for me because I had never had $3,000 before in my entire life.”

With little in front of him following that semester, Jeremy was sitting on a ripped couch, squatting in a house with no power, failing out of school for the second time and in insurmountable debt. He then received a letter from the university letting him know he wasn’t welcome back. Jeremy recalled, “That’s the moment where I realized ‘I’m going to have to figure something out.’ And I was crying. I just didn’t realize the consequences of the things I had done until all of them hit me all at once.” Bookmark.

Jeremy is facing the piano now, writing on empty parchment paper sitting where music would normally sit.
Photo credit: Matthew Wood: Strategic Communications

“I call it the moment when I decided to start tucking my shirt in.”

Jeremy’s resolve was compounded even more when he saw a visual representation of the many emotions he was feeling. He watched the movie “Jobs,” a biographical drama of former Apple CEO, Steve Jobs. Jeremy explains that the move scored a 28% on Rotten Tomatoes and was “wildly disappointing,” but one scene in which Jobs reacts to a shallow point in his life by tucking his shirt in violently resonated with Jeremy.

“To me, that said, ‘OK, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this seriously,’” Jeremy said. “That moment on the couch is when I decided to figure things out. I call it the moment when I decided to start tucking my shirt in.” After that, pieces slowly started to come together, and the determination started kicking in.

The summer of 2012, a few weeks after getting kicked out of college, Jeremy had the opportunity to continue his marching career through Drum Corps International: “Marching Music’s Major League” in Nashville, Tennessee. In debt and with no direction, Jeremy decided to back away from this opportunity and return home to figure out how to put the pieces back together. “It was one of the hardest decisions I had ever made at that point, but it ended up being absolutely crucial,” Jeremy said. Bookmark.

The corps director found Jeremy a position with a high school down the road from Nashville in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. After teaching band camp, Jeremy was offered a job teaching the drumline for the rest of the season. With college on hold, he accepted and moved to Murfreesboro.

Jeremy began to develop a new resolve. “I’m the guy that everyone thinks is funny, but this isn’t getting me anywhere, and that can’t be my identity, and that can’t be who I am,” he said. “It was a long process for me to learn how to take things seriously.”

Following that band season, Jeremy moved back to Florence, back into the house near campus. This time, the power was on, the rent was paid and he had a new roommate.

In spring 2014, two years after getting kicked out of college, Jeremy re-enrolled. He also started teaching a drumline an hour and a half north of Florence. “Suddenly, I was making $30 an hour so I could pay off my debt and pay for college,” Jeremy said.

The excitement was mounting, and Jeremy was tenacious in his efforts. Jeremy traveled back and forth between work and school for three years and became a model student, making the dean’s list nearly every semester. Nearing the end of his undergraduate career, Jeremy was itching to return to Tennessee full time and decided to take every in-person class required in one semester.

While driving to and from work in Tennessee, Jeremy took 23 hours of courses, including two 500-level philosophy classes, two science classes with labs and a senior recital for percussion. Against many of his peer’s recommendations, he also decided to finance, produce and premiere a ballet.

“I’d reached this point in my life, this is where I started, and this will be a bookmark in my life,” he said about the ballet. “I’m going to put this here, and I was really hellbent on doing that.”

“I felt like Steph Curry. I was draining it from half court, and I really felt like I couldn’t miss.”

The ballet was more successful than he could have imagined. “The Singularity: A Modern Ballet” premiered in April 2017 to two sold-out crowds that paid for the project. More important, the exposure Jeremy received from it was worth its weight in gold. He was immediately asked to write a piece for the Shoals Chamber Singers and he offered to write them a mass.

“A mass, like a ballet, is a major work that many composers strive to do,” Jeremy said. “A lot of the composers that I admire have done one. So, I decided at 24 that it’s a good time for me to make that mark.”

Jeremy also started getting more commissions for high school marching band shows than he could take on. “I felt like Steph Curry,” he said. “I was draining it from half-court, and I really felt like I couldn’t miss. It was a really rough semester, but a really triumphant one as well.” Bookmark.

Jeremy spent his last semester online living in Murfreesboro, where he ultimately received a head teaching job with a marching band. After failing out of college with a 0.27 grade-point average, Jeremy finished with a 3.98 GPA.

Jeremy’s unfaltering spirit that took off his final year of undergrad still hasn’t stopped.

Things didn’t slow down in graduate school. To keep up with demand, Jeremy founded Southcoast Music and Design, focused on delivering world-class marching arts packages. The company is growing to this day and remains a part of Jeremy’s long-term career plans. Jeremy mentioned, “When I got to grad school, I was at a point where my work was speaking for itself.”

At the end of his master’s program, life was chaotic for Jeremy. He attended classes in Murfreesboro, taught percussion in Nashville and lived in Florence, while working at a radio station and holding a graduate assistantship and continued to build his company. He spent his Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in Alabama and his Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in Tennessee.

Jeremy holds a baton, ready to command the orchestra
Photo credit: Matthew Wood, Strategic Communications

After another sip of coffee, Jeremy pivots the story.

“Growing up, we were always big Alabama fans,” Jeremy said. “My parents had a framed portrait of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant above their bed, but the university was a place where other people went.”

Jeremy is the first college graduate in his family, but since graduating, his mother has finished a degree, and his brother is well on his way. After building up his curriculum vitae, Jeremy had an abundance of universities vying for an opportunity to name him their doctoral candidate. In the end, it all came down to a Zoom call one late Friday night with Dr. Amir Zaheri, the Associate Director of the School of Music at UA.

Jeremy recalled, “Dr. Zaheri met with me at 8 p.m. on a Friday night and talked with me for two hours. How important, and valued, and accepted I felt after those two hours… I was sold on Bama.” Bookmark.

After leaving lessons with other highly regarded professors, Jeremy realized that the Capstone was his home. With the help of Dr. Zaheri, Jeremy arrived on campus at The University of Alabama a few months ago, in 2021, in pursuit of his doctoral degree in music composition. Empowered and dedicated, he has already hit the ground running with commissions coming in left and right.

“It’s crazy,” Jeremy said. “Within a few weeks of me starting, I got asked to do a piece for the Southeastern Tuba and Euphonium Conference, the National Saxophone Conference, a piece for the concert band and quite a few more. I’ve had to start saying no to things. These are major opportunities that have either come through UA or because I’m at UA.”

Jeremy is also teaching as an adjunct professor, working with the Million Dollar Band and working on academic compositions.

“It’s this beautiful pocket of talent and passion and acceptance and a great place to be.”

As Jeremy finished his coffee, he reflected on where he’s at. “I think it’s important to note that while I did a lot of this myself, there were people along the way that helped,” he said. “I have been so lucky to have strong people who believed in me, even back then.”

Because of his mentors, Jeremy plans to teach at a university when he is done with his studies. His hope is to inspire and help people through their most formative time. Jeremy went on to explain, “I think my experiences and things that I’ve gone through are not something that most college professors have been through. So, I’m uniquely qualified to teach and do that and understand from a different standpoint, and I want to use my experiences to help others.”

Finally, Jeremy closed the conversation with encouragement to anyone considering The University of Alabama for a graduate degree. “Don’t underestimate Tuscaloosa,” he said. “Tuscaloosa is this beautiful pocket of talent and passion and acceptance and a great place to be.”

An incredible journey has brought Jeremy Smith to The University of Alabama. His grit and determination will take him even further. While unsure of where life will take him next, one thing is for sure, nothing will stop Jeremy from reaching his next bookmark.


Footnote: Since this article was published, Jeremy Smith has gone on to receive full funding for his PhD.

Image of Mingtai Chen in a computer lab with glowing red light surrounding him

Looking Beyond the Mountains

Image of Mingtai Chen in a computer lab with glowing red light surrounding him
Mingtai Chen

Mingtai recalls when he was younger, he would always ask his parents, “What is behind the mountains?” Born in the village of Hejiaba in Sichuan Province of China, Mingtai Chen (PhD, Spring ’21) always had his eyes focused beyond the horizon. The tiny village sits on the banks of the Yangtze River and is surrounded by towering mountains covered in dense green forests. With only one way in and out of the village, these mountains created a sense of isolation for the villagers, especially the children.

The Yangtze River provides Hejiaba’s most significant export – ornamental river stones. These stones aren’t the pebbles you may pocket on vacation but heavy boulders for which Chinese stone collectors pay good money. Contrarily, the region’s rarest export is college students. Mingtai was a determined young man, becoming the first Hejiaba resident to leave the village to attend college, let alone acquire a doctoral degree. The event was so unprecedented, Mingtai mentioned that “when I got my offer from the university, there was a big ceremony at my home.”

While collecting information for this story, our team got to spend time with Mingtai at his aerospace engineering lab in Hardaway Hall. We ended up in the back of the historic building in a sizable warehouse-like space that serves as the home to The University of Alabama’s wind tunnels. With a dissertation dedicated to rotor-wing interactions, these wind tunnels are the catalyst for his research. To the average joe, the room looks like something out of a science fiction film. These tunnels dominate the room, and you can tell that Mingtai has found a new home.

Being an international student at an American university is an adventure experienced by few. When talking about the transition from China to the United States, Mingtai prioritized taking oral English classes.

“The language barrier is always an obstacle for international students, but living here is very comfortable,” he said.

He also found The University of Alabama’s weather pleasant.

“The climate is like Shanghai,” he said. “So you get used to the weather very quickly.”

Mingtai credits the classes in empowering him to adapt and engage in academic research. At the close of Mingtai’s interview, he looked back at his career at The University of Alabama with fondness and noted how lucky he has been.

He started by saying, “I really admire my university and hope UA can develop to be better and better…I hope many Chinese students can come to UA and to the United States. I’m glad I was able to make a small contribution to that.”

Mingtai is poised to continue his career in an assistant professor position in the United States. He will undoubtedly continue to make his village proud as he continues to look beyond the mountains for his next adventure.

Nayeli Pineda

A Conversation with Nayeli Pineda

Nayeli Pineda, a C&IS master's candidate, gazes boldly ahead.
Photo credit: Matthew Wood, Strategic Communications

TUSCALOOSA, Ala., April 5, 2021 一 Nayeli Pineda adjusts her seat, smiles and folds her hands in her lap. Even after a year of practice, it’s hard to overcome the awkwardness of video calls. I greet her and ask how she’s doing. She’s well. Work’s been tough lately, but she’s hanging in there. I ask where she works, and she tells me she has three jobs, mostly food service; she’ll have to quit them once her internship starts. We commiserate shortly about businesses reopening before she changes the subject. A journalist herself, Nayeli admits she’s having a hard time understanding why someone might interview her. I tell her that, from where I’m sitting, the reason is clear.

Six months ago, Nayeli was just Nayeli: a Birmingham (Hoover) native, daughter of Mexican immigrants, working multiple jobs to support her education and make ends meet. She wasn’t a scholarship student or academic award winner; she was neither an athlete nor an entrepreneur. But today, she is a rising star in entertainment media. Her resourcefulness and work ethic had allowed her to overcome racial and financial hurdles, earn a seat in UA’s prestigious Communications and Information Sciences graduate program and help the Latinx community overcome COVID-19. And recently, her tenacity had landed her an internship on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. 

As we talk, my eyes wander, surveying Nayeli’s room. Aside from a couple houseplants, which wind themselves wabi-sabi along her windowsill, her bedroom is well-kempt. Her bed is made, the floor is clean. I spot a couple books on the shelf. It’s clear Nayeli doesn’t spend much time here. This room is for resting, working and little else.

“You okay with me recording?” I ask, standard procedure for interviews.

“Of course,” she says, then she laughs. “Just don’t let me say something wrong or unflattering.” 

I note the thoughtful cadence of her speech. “Just be yourself,” I say. 

I press record on the Zoom call, and Nayeli sees the red light in the corner of her screen. Her shoulders heave as she takes a deep breath.

“Where should I begin?” she asks. 

“Let’s start from the top and see where it takes us.” 

“Okay.” She takes another breath and thinks for a moment. “My parents always told us we needed to go to college, so there was no way my brother and I weren’t going to go. I chose The University of Alabama because it was the best choice for an in-state education.”

Though she loved UA, Nayeli had to leave school for personal and financial reasons. But nothing could keep her from earning a degree and building a better life for her family. She was determined to return. 

“Leaving was difficult,” she says. “It was like, ‘Okay, you’ve got to pick yourself back up and do this.’ I had no safety net, and failing wasn’t an option, so I buckled down and got to work.

“I had no safety net,” Nayeli says. “And failing wasn’t an option, so I buckled down and got to work.”

“When I returned my sophomore year, I was much more focused. I was a semester behind, but working had given me a drive I’d never felt before. I was an adult. I knew how a bank account and credit card worked, and I knew how to pay things off. I knew how much school cost, how much I needed to save and how much I needed for a tax refund the next year. I budgeted meticulously because I knew there was no way I was leaving until I had my degree. I needed stability, and I wasn’t stopping until I’d earned it.”

Nayeli returned to UA and majored in political science, with a focus in gender and race issues, and later double majored in English. Throughout, she continued to work multiple jobs while taking fall, spring and summer classes. Her job in the creative media office is what set her on her path toward journalism.

“I built relationships with the faculty. Dr. Armstrong, my current chair, looked through some of my research articles and saw a future for me in entertainment media. While I had originally planned on applying to the Law School or women and gender studies, she nudged me toward journalism and creative media. I applied, was accepted and started my master’s right after graduation.

“I needed stability, and I wasn’t stopping until I’d earned it.”

“Grad school is different from undergrad and completely different from what I thought it was going to be. Though my writing had gotten better in undergrad, my English professors had done a great job building me up and making me better, it was nothing compared to what my professors expected from me in JCM. I felt like an imposter. ‘I don’t really deserve to be here,’ I thought. ‘I don’t have any journalistic experience.’ Like, we had a guy who was published in The New York Times. I couldn’t compare to that. But I connected with Dr. Meredith Cummings, director of the Alabama Scholastic Press Association, and became her assistant. Then I met Keli Stiglich, and she helped me get published. 

“Lately, I’ve been into helping others. ASPA helps high school students find niches and passions that they didn’t know they had. And honestly, it lit a fire in me that I didn’t know I had. Working with Dr. Cummings has been very rewarding. It makes sense.” 

Nayeli’s history and passion for helping others led her to the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!), a community development and advocacy organization that champions economic equality, civic engagement and social justice for Latinx and immigrant families in Alabama.

“They do a lot for Hispanics in Birmingham,” she says. “Right now, they’re helping with COVID-19 vaccinations; they do site runs and donate food. During the height of COVID, they started paying bills for the community, and I enjoyed being part of that. While I was there, I was a policy research intern. I looked into language access legislation in southern states. Right now, they’re trying to introduce something that helps with language access. Alabama isn’t doing a very good job, and I’ve been doing preliminary research to help move the legislature along. 

“I returned to ¡HICA! During fall 2020 to help with financial aid workshops. I remember my FAFSA being difficult, so I wanted to help Hispanic high school students and parents who had never done it before. I’m still in touch with some of them.

“While that experience was rewarding, it did make me want to branch into entertainment media. Helping people with paperwork is great, but awareness reaches a lot more people.

“For me, it’s always been about diversifying the media industry. I’ve always wanted to do that; it’s always been my dream.”

“Looking back, everything I’ve done has centered around amplifying others; getting messages out from people who need more personified voices. For me, it’s always been about diversifying the media industry. I’ve always wanted to do that; it’s always been my dream. 

“With that in mind, I’ve always applied to big companies — dream jobs, you know, for fun. I’ve applied to WarnerMedia, NBC, Lionsgate, you name it. I’ve always done it and never heard anything back. It wasn’t until this year that I actually got a reply. 

“By December 2020, I realized I hadn’t applied to anything in a while, so in January, I figured I’d give it one last shot. After two years of silence, I figured it just wasn’t going to happen. I applied to two companies, NBC Universal and WarnerMedia, but I applied to 60 different positions.

“I’m kind of private about that stuff, so when I didn’t hear anything for a while, no one knew about it. I didn’t even tell my parents because I didn’t want them to get excited or worry about it. I don’t know if it’s a Hispanic parents’ thing, but they’ll get on you,” she laughs. “I did tell my brother about it, though. He’s a JCM major here, focusing on film studies, and I told my boyfriend and best friend. But that was it. 

“The late night one, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, was actually the first place I applied. So I was shocked when someone finally called me and even more shocked when I kept advancing.”

Despite being nervous, Pineda aced her interview and was offered a position. But she kept the news to herself at first, trying to process the achievement.

I guess I still didn’t think it was going to happen. I didn’t tell my parents until after I posted it on LinkedIn, and it started blowing up. 

“It’s all been very surreal. That world is just so unobtainable for people like me. I don’t have any connections; I don’t know anyone. The only things I’ve heard from people who work in the industry are stuff like, ‘my uncle has a job there’ or ‘my dad has a friend.’ I’ve never thought of myself as someone who belongs among those people.”

“But you do,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. Nayeli looks down at her keyboard, and I realize this is the first moment she’s had to reflect. She smiles. “I guess so.”

Tenacious. Dedicated. Unshakeable. Despite all odds, Nayeli’s passion and determination have earned her financial freedom and a chance to leave a lasting impact. Facing any number of similar obstacles, most would give up. But not Nayeli. For her, adversity is an opportunity – not only to prove herself but to amplify her community and honor her family. And that’s what makes her worthy of an interview. 

UA EMBA alumnus Patrick Talley

Patrick Talley Moves Ahead To Reach Back for Others

UA EMBA alumnus Patrick Talley
Patrick Talley, an alumnus of the Executive MBA program through The University of Alabama Manderson Graduate School of Business. Photo courtesy of o2 Ideas.

Born and raised on the edges of Birmingham, Alabama, Patrick Talley determined early in his life that a college degree was not optional; it was a requirement. He noted the career differences between his college-educated mother and his father, who only has a high school diploma. Patrick sat near his mother as she spent hours at her studies to earn her college degrees, setting a tone for the importance of education.

“When you see someone doing it, you see what it takes to earn a degree – staying up all night to study and sacrificing a personal life to meet your goals,” Patrick said.

Patrick was in high school when a family friend suggested he consider the McNair Scholars Program, submitting a letter of recommendation on his behalf. Named for Dr. Ronald E. McNair after his death in the 1986 Challenger catastrophe, the McNair Scholars Program encourages low-income, first-generation or under-represented minority college students to engage in research toward the pursuit of a doctoral degree.

“I joined the McNair Scholars, because it’s where the smart kids are, and I knew I wanted to go to college. This was my vehicle to get there,” stated Patrick.

Choosing to stay close to home but not at home, Patrick pursued his bachelor’s degree in marketing at the University of Montevallo, discovering a community of McNair Scholars that provided support and accountability. Patrick’s hard work quickly turned to success through the program, presenting his work at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Ithaca, New York.

Ready to press on to his career after graduation, Patrick went to work building an impressive portfolio with car makers, nonprofits and building material manufacturers. He stayed in touch with the rest of his McNair Scholars community, watching their graduations and career goals come to fruition as they reached their terminal degrees. It was this community that continued to keep Patrick accountable to the purpose of their program – achieve that terminal degree.

Patrick assessed where he was in his career and which degree program would pull him back to his ultimate goals and assist his new ones. Reaching back to his alma mater for direction, they connected Patrick with Lesley Campbell at The University of Alabama, who worked with him for over a year to find the program that was the ultimate fit. Once they figured it out together, Patrick was ready to enroll in the Manderson Graduate School of Business’ Executive MBA program.

The EMBA, an accelerated program at the University, provides a path for working professionals to achieve an advanced degree while continuing their careers. Courses are a hybrid of online and in-person, meeting one weekend each month over the two years of the program. It culminates in a two-week international trip for experiential learning of global markets, cultures and business practices.

Patrick stated, “I chose this program, because its core is working professionals. I knew I would be in class with people at the same point in life as me and with people who I can aspire to be. And I knew I would have quality professors who were practitioners in their fields.”

Serving as vice president of his cohort, Patrick graduated in the Class of May 2020. As for what he’ll do from here, Patrick has a purposeful vision.

“Businesses are the most powerful entities in the world in terms of resources, influence and reach. They have an obligation to give back to society. I want to be a conscious business leader in order to give back, and for me, that means giving back to McNair, to be a professor who looks like me for my students.”

What’s your purpose you’re waiting to fulfill? For more information about The University of Alabama Graduate School, visit

UA alumna Tori Stone poses in her lab at Yale University.

Overcoming Doubt To Discover Her Passion

Tori Stone (PhD, Spring ’18) is a women’s health researcher at Yale University. Quick to conversation, Tori’s honest about the hard work her accomplishments required, her unsure path to reach them and the advisers who aided her way.

An Unsure Future

UA alumna Tori Stone poses in her lab at Yale University.
UA alumna Tori Stone poses in her lab workspace at Yale University.

Tori’s route to Yale, made possible with a doctorate from The University of Alabama Graduate School, began at Indiana State University, long before she realized which direction she was steering. As a student-athlete on the track team, a bachelor’s in exercise science was an easy fit. Too easy, according to her adviser.

“I was not a good student in undergrad,” Tori admits. She was there for her sport, earning a degree along the way with no plans what to do with it. When her adviser suggested graduate school, she was shocked.

“I’ve never been academically inclined, so when he told me that exercise science is a transition degree and asked me what I wanted to do with it, I was lost. I pushed back, asking him ‘Why do you care?’ And his answer got me. ‘Because you’re like me.’ He laid out our common ground and invited me to his research team, coaching me to grad school along the way.”

Lacking the confidence in her academics that she carried onto the field, Tori didn’t feel she was graduate student material. “I told him, ‘I can’t do that,’ and he asked me why. I didn’t have an answer.”

The next stretch of Tori’s route was a master’s in applied physiology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she expanded her research toward women’s health and cardiovascular research. At times overwhelmed and intimidated, Tori found she had another encouraging adviser to provide direction. A GTA position, while valuable, quickly helped Tori determine research, not teaching, was her strength. Pressing into that, her adviser encouraged her to find a doctoral program where she could develop her own niche. And once again, Tori’s “I can’t” was met with “Yes, you can.”

“He didn’t recruit me; I recruited him.”

Still searching for an ultimate direction, Tori narrowed her selection to a handful of schools. After a UA campus tour and visit with Dr. Jonathan E. Wingo, professor and chair in the department of kinesiology, her search ended.

Tori Stone continues her research into women's health.
Tori Stone reads ultrasound data with a subject as she continues her research begun at The University of Alabama.

Tori had been following Dr. Wingo’s cardiovascular work for some time and knew he could help her define her passion. Settling into The University of Alabama Graduate School was easy; taking ownership of her research was exciting. As a graduate assistant, she was writing research in her first semester, an opportunity generally not afforded to new students at many institutions.

“His job was to develop me into a serious researcher, but he let me be myself and have a voice. Anything I asked about, it didn’t matter how busy he was, he gave everything his full attention.”

Developing Tori’s leadership and confidence, Dr. Wingo coached her toward postdoc work from the first day in the lab, pushing her toward new CV-building experiences including grant funding and paper writing. And with that guidance, Tori found her niche – the influence of reproductive hormones on female cardiovascular health and hormone balance regeneration.

As graduation neared, her adviser made the postdoc process an easy to-do list. By reframing how she thought about it, Tori found herself newly equipped with the confidence and knowledge to push her work further.

A good lead and strong advice

Now thriving in the John B. Pierce Laboratory at Yale University, Tori has made a comfortable switch to obstetrics and gynecology in her research and recently published her latest article. She repeats Dr. Wingo’s advice to herself often; “Don’t be distracted by the future and forget about the now.” It’s the voice of confidence that grounds her focus on her research and moves her forward.

To discover your own way forward or connect with a future mentor, contact the The University of Alabama Graduate School at

Online Graduate Nursing Programs Advance the Field

While many higher education programs are diligently working toward a successful move to online delivery, some of The University of Alabama Capstone College of Nursing’s graduate programs, coordinated with Bama By Distance, are already well-established in the space, supporting online programs since 1999. UA’s graduate nursing programs provide stellar academic training to working professionals across the Southeast in a format that allows for participation around the demands of an active career and personal life.

Master of Science in Nursing, Nurse Administrator Concentration

Dionne Brady has the flexibility with her graduate program and work to take a meaningful vacation with her family.
Dionne Brady and her family visited Disney, fall 2019, to celebrate a birthday.

Dionne Brady, a nursing graduate student based in Tennessee, loves learning. It’s a trait she hopes her children pick up from her. With 15 years of nursing practice to spur her on, Dionne is pursuing her third degree, a master’s in nursing with an emphasis on administration. She’s developing leadership skills to make herself more marketable in the field and standout among her peers as she elevates her career through greater pay and regular hours.

Before enrolling at the University, Dionne performed extensive research to explore available programs across several schools. She was looking for an online program attached to a physical school with a strong reputation. She wanted to continue to work full time while keeping her husband and children top priorities, so a strong work/life balance was essential. Once the first two criteria were met, she narrowed her selection to The University of Alabama for its affordability and customizable program.

Dionne is now in her third semester and steadily moving toward her goals. While she may be a distance-learner in Tennessee, Dionne remains involved on UA’s campus, serving as a Graduate Nursing Student Ambassador and enjoying the cultural community through online participation.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

The flexibility of online learning allows Kerry Varner time to coach soccer for his son.
Kerry Varner and his family celebrate a soccer win. Kerry has time to coach around his work and class schedule.

Attending The University of Alabama is a dream come true for Andalusia-resident Kerry Varner. A lifelong fan of the Crimson Tide, Kerry’s enthusiasm for carries to the Capstone College of Nursing. “I chose UA for its phenomenal reputation. It really is a prestigious university and college,” stated Kerry.

A full-time nurse anesthetist, husband and father/soccer coach to his two small children, Kerry was also looking for affordability and flexibility in an advanced program that would help him with his goal to “move the profession forward” while being involved in his kids’ activities. As a member of the college’s strategic planning committee, Kerry is able to be an influential member of UA’s nursing community, representing students in meetings with the dean and instructors.

Kerry admits he was intimidated by the thought of online classes in the beginning, but he caught on quickly. Now in his final semester of his program, Kerry expects to carry the momentum of his education forward into his career, pushing advancement and research one patient at a time.

Excellence in Teaching and Service

Dionne and Kerry cite the availability and responsiveness of their professors over and over again. Displaying more than professional courtesy, the Capstone College of Nursing’s faculty are involved with their students, closing the distance of online learning to become valued mentors of their profession.

For more information about graduate programs in UA’s Graduate School, visit

Sharniece Holland, an alumna of UA's Graduate School, poses on Washington University campus, St. Louis, Missouri.

Involvement Builds Sharniece Holland’s Success

Sharniece Holland, an alumna of UA's Graduate School, poses on Washington University campus, St. Louis, Missouri.
Sharniece Holland, now a professor at Washington University, earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at The University of Alabama.

Sharniece Holland is a proven leader who demonstrates driven tenacity toward her goals – academically and professionally.

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Sharniece first moved to Alabama to attend the HBCU Alabama State University, where she led multiple student organizations on her way to a Bachelor of Science in mathematics (2010). Immediately after graduation, she moved 100 miles north to take on a yearlong mathematics master’s program at The University of Alabama. 

Somehow graduate school wasn’t what she was expecting though. Knowing she wouldn’t be in Tuscaloosa long, Sharniece stuck to her studies. Though she really enjoyed UA, she readily admits her struggle came down to one condition. “I wasn’t prepared the first time for graduate school.”

In a hurry to begin her career, Sharniece took the most direct path to graduation, missing her opportunity to grow and explore. She completed her master’s in 2011, taking her first job as an English and math teacher in South Korea. With her added experience, Sharniece stepped into an adjunct position at a St. Louis tech school when she returned.

After two years at the tech school, Sharniece was restless. She had peaked where she was at and was looking for ways to make herself more marketable and increase her job options.

Confiding her frustrations to a friend, a physics student at UA, Sharniece dug to the root of what she loved most about math, realizing she enjoys utilizing math to solve much bigger projects. To her friend, the solution was obvious; Sharniece needed to switch her focus to materials science.

With more wisdom and experience, Sharniece returned to The University of Alabama as a materials science doctoral student with the resolve to make the most of her time on campus. “When I came back to UA, I was more ready,” Sharniece says. “I enjoyed my department, my advisor. I was more involved, and it really enriched my experience.”

“As a student, I wanted to be able to have an impact on my university,” Sharniece stated. And she did, first joining Tide Together, a peer mentoring program dedicated to helping underrepresented students build personal and professional connections. During her second tenure at UA, she also served as a graduate ambassador, a Graduate Council student representative and the president of the African American Graduate Student Association.

Sharniece’s efforts were not unnoticed. Her research secured funding from several national sources, including The Southern Regional Education Board Dissertation Scholar Fellowship, Alabama NASA EPSCoR Graduate Research Scholars Program, The National Science Foundation: Bridge to Doctorate Fellowship and The National Science Foundation: Alabama Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program Scholarship.

The funding, programs and faculty guidance propelled Sharniece toward her vision. “Drs. Lin Li and Viola Acoff were very helpful and invested in my future. This school will work just as hard for you as you work. It really supported me.”

Now Dr. Holland, Sharniece is back in St. Louis, teaching in the Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science Department at Washington University, a position recommended to her by Dr. Li.

“The doctorate helped me land the job,” Sharniece says. “Campus activities gave me knowledge, and the Graduate School empowered me through funding and experience.”

Ready to find out how you can be involved at The University of Alabama? Apply today:

UA graduate students and Black Warrior Review editors Mark Galaritta and Jackson Saul sit with recent copies of the Black Warrior Review journal at a table in the BWR office located in the basement of Gallaway Theater.

Black Warrior Review Receives Prestigious Grant

UA graduate students and Black Warrior Review editors Mark Galaritta and Jackson Saul sit with recent copies of the Black Warrior Review journal at a table in the BWR office located in the basement of Gallaway Theater.
UA graduate students and the 2019 Black Warrior Review editors Mark Galarrita and Jackson Saul sit with recent copies of the Black Warrior Review journal.

“The Black Warrior Review is a Southern journal,” says 2019’s Managing Editor Jackson Saul. “It’s always been a Southern journal. Even if the writers are not Southern, they find a home in the South.”

This hospitality is what sets The Black Warrior Review (BWR) apart from its peers since its founding in 1974. Despite being the oldest continuously run graduate literary journal in the United States, BWR and its staff are unfazed by romantic notions of custom or heritage. Instead, BWR nudges Southern literature forward, viewing the Southern experience through unconventional lenses. It gives voice to minorities, immigrants, LGBTQIA+ and others who struggle to find a platform to be heard from. These voices are unconventional, unapologetic and incredibly moving.

BWR receives continued refreshment each year, due largely to the annual turnover with an entirely new student editorial staff each year. A new staff continues to keep the journal’s focus fresh with new ideas.

The BWR editorial class of 2018, led by Cat Ingrid Leeches, completed the application and groundwork that resulted in receiving the 2019 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize – a print development grant that covers $5,000 per year for up to three years. While several BWR-featured writers have won awards in the past, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this is the first time the journal has received a national commendation.

“Receiving this award is a confirmation of what others have already known about us,” stated Saul.

In 2019, the staff heightened its commitment to excellence. Saul and his colleague, Editor Mark Galarrita, have already outlined their plan for the publication.

“In the coming years, we will use the grant to increase sales and improve the journal,” says Saul. “We have hired an online editor and waived the submissions fee – which we think will lead to better content and a larger pool of work.”

Already known for setting the career course for rising writers, BWR can now afford an additional online volume to continue to elevate the voices of marginalized writers and find new risk-taking work.

“I want to be on the right side of history,” says Galarrita. “This is our chance to get the story right and reach an all-new audience. It’s time the world heard about the real South – the South you don’t see in the media.”

Issue 46.1 of the Black Warrior Review is currently on sale. To submit work for the next issue, visit

The Black Warrior Review is sponsored by the MFA Program in Creative Writing and is produced through the work of graduate research assistants in the department. The University of Alabama’s Creative Writing MFA is one of two 4-year programs in the United States; many students take advantage of the fourth year to write extensive theses, pursue a second master’s degree or gain additional teaching experience.

For more information, including application submission dates and program requirements, contact the program director, Professor Wendy Rawlings. If you’re ready to apply, contact the Graduate School.