Las Vegas Sun

June 12, 2021

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Southern Nevada graduates set high bar for talent, work ethic


Courtesy of UNLV Athletics

UNLV Athletics department staff members including Director of Athletics Desiree Reed-Francois and other administrators, created a caravan to honor the 65 UNLV student-athletes eligible to graduate as part of the university commencement class of 3,100 that would have been part of UNLV’s spring commencement ceremonies, Saturday, May 16, 2020. The staff and coaches rolled through the valley from 9 am to 3 pm, making 20 stops and traveling more than 140 miles to honor Rebel student-athletes who were in town. (Courtesy of UNLV Athletics)

The coronavirus pandemic may have wiped out college graduation season, but the Las Vegas Valley’s Class of 2020 shines brightly even though it didn’t get its well-deserved turn in the spotlight.

Today, we celebrate this year’s graduates from UNLV, the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College by showcasing some of the remarkable individuals who received their diplomas this month.

Although the pandemic darkened the ceremonies, it can’t diminish our community’s immense pride in these thousands of new alumni. As shown by the stories of the following representatives of the class, the talents and capabilities of this next generation of leaders offer a glowing ray of hope and reassurance in these uncertain times.

We wish them all the best as they venture forward.


• Martha Amaya not only earned three degrees in four years (political science, French and criminal justice), she did it with a nearly perfect grade-point average of 3.98.

She also became the first Nevadan to be selected as a Running Start Congressional Fellow, and was among only 29 students out of 600 nationwide to be selected as a Public Policy and International Affairs Fellow at Princeton University in 2019. Amaya also worked as a research analyst with the State Department through the Virtual Student Federal Service Program and has analyzed French-language media regarding Haiti and current human trafficking and migration trends.

• Carter Chiu’s meteoric college trajectory began at 16 and includes a number of rare milestones. He was selected as a junior to join computer science professor Justin Zhan’s Big Data Hub, which led to collaborations from graduate and postdoctoral students as well as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Chiu then was directly admitted from a bachelor’s degree into UNLV’s computer science doctoral program — the program’s youngest-ever Ph.D. student, at 19. He defended his dissertation at 22 and earned his doctorate this year with a 4.0 GPA.

• While pursuing her degree in political science, Akaisha Cook worked on local and presidential campaigns at UNLV and also served as an intern in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office during the 2019 legislative session. There, the first-generation college student introduced one of Sisolak’s key measures — the creation of the Office for New Americans. Now she’s off to Georgetown University with guaranteed employment as a foreign service officer after graduating.

• John Olawepo received medical training in Nigeria and postgraduate public health training from London before enrolling at UNLV. That led to a focus on global health in his doctoral research, where he collaborated with researchers around the world in pursuit of a model for implementing health programs in developing countries. Olawepo’s particular area of study is on making improvements throughout the HIV care continuum, and for his dissertation, he studied obesity among people living with AIDS to explore ways to help those individuals live healthier lives.

He also mentored a number of UNLV undergraduate students participating in UNLV Graduate College programs, and represented UNLV as a graduate college ambassador for two terms.

• When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Lara Turello was doing pioneering research on a different pathogen — known as C. diff — in pursuit of her masters in biochemistry. As COVID-19 spread, though, she added volunteer work to prepare collection tubes for testing kits. She’s part of a team of UNLV faculty and students preparing more than 5,000 tubes per week to send to the Southern Nevada Health District. Meanwhile, her work continues on C. diff, which causes a serious hospital-borne illness that afflicts about 500,000 Americans per year. Turello, who in 2017 was honored by Sen. Jacky Rosen with a Nevada Women in STEM award, also volunteers to train University Medical Center personnel in the use of robotic pipetting to boost output of COVID-19 testing.

College of Southern Nevada

• Just two years after arriving in the United States from Cuba, Silvio Ernesto Mirabal Torres went from speaking no English and having no firm plan for his life to becoming one of only eight college students in the nation to land a prestigious spot analyzing ancient skeletal remains from the Middle East as part of a National Science Foundation grant.

Then, he and a CSN classmate were selected to join an international team to work on a newly discovered site in Poland dating to the 11th century.

That project is on hold due to the coronavirus, but Torres is moving ahead: He’s enrolled at UNLV with plans to eventually obtain a doctorate.

• Having opted to work part time job after graduating from high school rather than go to college, Krista McFarling-Kelly found herself bored. No longer. After seeing a CSN advertisement on a bus — she didn’t have a car — McFarling-Kelly enrolled at the school and became involved in the Black Student Union club. She became heavily involved in the university through the organization, and was chosen to be this year’s commencement speaker. Now, she’s planning to major in biology at UNR with an eye toward a career in obstetrics and gynecology.

Nevada State College

• On Naomi Rosen’s way to earning a bachelor’s degree in deaf studies, she learned to interpret several languages through American Sign Language effectively and helped her classmates by opening her home to weekend study sessions. She completed her degree while raising two young boys and volunteering in the community, and she recently passed the Registry of Interpreters and Educational Interpreter Professional Assessment exams. Now, Rosen is on her way to becoming one of Nevada State College’s first registered interpreters.

• Alexandria “Alex” Hughes used her time at NSC to do far more than study. Among several community service activities, she established an organization that hosts free movie nights to discuss issues affecting the African-American community in Las Vegas. She also is completing a business development internship with the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, through which she has built numerous relationships with the business community.