Two MSU students receive prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

Contact: James Carskadon

Paulino “PJ” Jarquin (Photo by Logan Kirkland)Ciarra Smith (Photo by Logan Kirkland)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Two graduating Mississippi State seniors have been selected to receive prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.

Paulino “PJ” Jarquin, a biomedical engineering major from Nashville, Tennessee, and Ciarra Smith, a biochemistry major from Madison, Alabama, will both receive an annual stipend of $34,000 to continue their research at the graduate level thanks to the NSF fellowship. Jarquin will enroll in the joint Georgia Tech and Emory University biomedical engineering program. Smith will pursue a doctorate in neuroscience at Northwestern University.

Leading up to the announcement of these fellowships, both students had pursued several avenues for undergraduate research during their time at MSU. Seth Oppenheimer, associate dean for research at MSU’s Judy and Bobby Shackouls Honors College, said the university’s undergraduate research program allows students to take a deep dive into their subjects and turn what they have learned in classes into knowledge.

“These opportunities exist because of the generosity and commitment of our faculty to mentoring our students,” Oppenheimer said. “Still, in order to benefit from these openings for advancement, our students must be dedicated, creative and hard working. By taking advantage of the opportunities for research at Mississippi State, walking through the open door of possibility, Ciarra and PJ have moved to the next level of intellectual and scholarly achievement, the next mountains for them to climb.”

Smith is a member of the Shackouls Honors College and is part of the inaugural class of Provost Scholars at MSU, an honor that includes academic scholarships, as well as funding for study abroad and research. During her time at MSU, Smith has worked as a research assistant at the Social Science Research Center and College of Veterinary Medicine. At SSRC, she worked with Assistant Professor of Communication Holli Seitz on a study examining the correction of neuroscience misinformation. She also worked with SSRC Director Art Cosby on a study using big data to address the growing divide in rural and urban mortality rates. This past year, she served as editor-in-chief of The Streetcar, MSU’s student-made creative arts journal.

Smith has also spent summers doing research at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and at Colorado State University. At Northwestern, she will continue her neuroscience research, which focuses on neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. Smith said she is grateful that the NSF funding will allow her to spend more time focusing on her work.

“From my freshman year at MSU, I have been assisted in finding research opportunities both on campus and off campus,” Smith said. “That has been very instrumental in getting me where I am now. I’ve done a bunch of different research experiences so that I can figure out exactly what it is that sparks my interest."

Jarquin has spent the last two years working as a research assistant under Steven Elder, a professor in MSU’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. In Elder’s lab, Jarquin has conducted experiments to determine the viability of a natural compound to be used as a treatment for osteoarthritis. He also took part in a manufacturing science and technology engineering co-op at Alcon in Huntington, West Virginia, where he gained experience working in a medical device manufacturing facility. He also has worked as a biological science aid with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Jarquin said he was drawn to biomedical engineering because it was a good mix of math and biology and the versatile degree opens up many employment pathways after graduation. Since coming to MSU, Jarquin has presented research on campus and at the Biomedical Engineering Society in Atlanta. This year, he was named the Bagley College of Engineering Undergraduate Researcher of the Year.

“The experience helped shape my decision to go to graduate school,” Jarquin said. “I really enjoyed working in industry at a medical device manufacturing facility. But when I got back to doing research, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue and keep going with. I was able to gain hands-on experience, submit abstracts and present at conferences, which was all very important when applying to graduate school and the NSF fellowship.”

For more on the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program, visit

More information on research opportunities for MSU undergraduate students is available at

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Friday, May 3, 2019 - 2:53 pm