John Jay Alumna Comes to the Graduate Center With an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

August 10, 2023

The prestigious fellowship is the latest in a string of grants and awards for Melissa Ceren, an incoming Educational Psychology Ph.D. student.

Melissa Ceren headshot
Melissa Ceren (Photo courtesy of Ceren)

In late March, just over month after being admitted to the Graduate Center as an Educational Psychology Ph.D. student, Melissa Ceren received some additional good news. She was one of about 2,100 students, out of over 12,000 applicants, to receive a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP). Intended to promote diversity in the scientific and engineering workforce, the fellowship provides a three-year annual stipend of $37,000 and a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees. The NSF fellowship, which will augment Ceren’s Graduate Center Fellowship and Provost’s Enhancement Fellowship, will support her research on the impact of environmental education on students’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) topics and careers.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Educational Psychology

Winning the NSF fellowship, Ceren said, is the result of her dedication to making a difference in both science and society.

As an undergraduate at John Jay College, she majored in forensic psychology and minored in law. She racked up research experience and awards. In her first year, she joined Professor Charles B. Stone’s (GC/John Jay, Psychology) Memory and Cognition Lab, where she analyzed and coded data for a study on how and why college students share personal memories on social media. For her contributions to the research, she won a John Jay Rising Star Research Fellowship.

During her junior year, she joined the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program at John Jay, a selective, grant-funded program designed to encourage low-income and first- generation students to pursue graduate education. As a McNair scholar, Ceren, a first-generation college student whose parents immigrated to the United States from Guatemala, received external funding to conduct research with Distinguished Professor Kevin Nadal (GC/John Jay, Psychology) to investigate the narratives of immigrants and asylum seekers who experience microaggressions and their harmful effects on mental health.

She received other fellowships too, including a Vera Institute of Justice Fellowship and an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Fellowship, which supported research she conducted with Professor Jennifer Drake (GC/Brooklyn, Psychology) during the COVID-19 pandemic on how viewing art online affected students’ moods and emotion regulation. She presented her findings at national conferences.

Following her graduation from John Jay in 2021, a series of research experiences at CUNY and Columbia University as well as jobs as a teaching and research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History and an educator at the New York Botanical Garden sparked an interest in equitable STEM educational practices.

“During my doctoral studies, I hope to investigate why educational settings that promote diversity in students’ STEM involvement and achievement aren’t ubiquitous in schools,” she said.

In March 2022, Ceren began working in the lab of Professor Steven Holochwost (GC/Lehman College, Educational Psychology), a developmental psychologist who studies educational interventions for children and youth in poverty. Ceren assisted Holochwost on a grant-funded project with the educational nonprofit Firsthand Learning that examined the impact of informal, out-of-school STEM education programs on students’ attitudes about STEM subjects and careers.

That project, along with another she conducted with Columbia University Professor Diana Hernandez and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) on the public health benefits of environmental education initiatives, such as community gardens, helped her conceive the research project she proposed for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, she said.

Through the fellowship, Ceren in collaboration with FirstHand Learning, will lay the groundwork for a broader initiative of research on the development of STEM instruction in informal educational environments. The project has theoretical and practical implications for educational psychology, environmental science, and STEM education, Ceren said.

In applying for the NSF fellowship, she identified Holochwost as her adviser. “He is an established figure in the arts and STEM education community,” she said, adding that research interests mirror hers.

Ceren advises students interested in applying for the fellowship to contact a potential adviser early in the process and reach out to successful applicants.

“It's also helpful to see what other people have proposed to the NSF GRFP, especially now that most have posted their proposals online,” she said. “Connecting with them allows for networking, and it never hurts to ask if they can review your application.”

She knew, she said, that she wanted to stay at CUNY for her Ph.D.

“In terms of resources, mentorship, and the graduate student community, CUNY, overall, is the best fit for me,” she said. “Thanks to all of my mentors, especially Dr. Charles B. Stone, who first introduced me to research in psychology The relationships I formed at John Jay and CUNY have provided me with numerous environments to grow as a scholar, and receiving the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship will also enable me to expand my network of scholars on which to rely, as one cannot tackle these questions without mentorship from the research community.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing