Sustainability Fellowship Program

Sustainability Fellows are graduate students who receive a scholarship for their collaboration with OFS on sustainability research projects, including the biennial AASHE-STARS assessment of UTRGV's sustainability commitment across the campus.

Created in 2019, this program provides graduate students with an immersive research experience focused on sustainability.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) will competitively award one-year graduate fellowships to outstanding new students to engage in projects addressing sustainability and community resilience in the Rio Grande Valley coordinated by UTRGV’s Office of Sustainability.  The following guidelines may be downloaded here.

Sustainability Fellows are graduate students who receive a scholarship for their collaboration with OFS on sustainability research projects, including the biennial AASHE-STARS assessment of UTRGV's sustainability commitment across the campus.

Sustainability Fellows

  • Spring 2020 Fellows

    Armando Garces
    Jacqueline Lopez
    Karla Salazar
    Mauricio Castalleno
    Raul Espinosa Perez
  • Fall 2019 Fellows

    Diego Alonso
    Jaafar Mouhamad
    Omar Vazquez Perez
    Zach Johnson
  • Spring 2019 Fellows

    Jeffrey Aquino Gomez
    Jeffrey Aquino-Gomez
    Shreya Udawant
    Shreya Udawant
    Yessenia Rodriguez
    Yessenia Rodriguez
    Computer Science
    Yessica Rodriguez
    Yessica Rodriguez
    Computer Science

    • Diego Lopez, Mechanical Engineering
    • Mauricio A. Pena, Biology
    • Perla Melendez, English
    • Diana Lara, Translation and Interpreting
    • Lazaro Lopez-Mendez, Interdisciplinary Studies
    • Jeanette Moritz, I.S., Anthropology

Developing an effective detection model for Alzheimer's Disease: A sustainable solution for therapeutic intervention  

Sustianability Fellows: Armando Garces 

The United Nations predicts that by the year 2050 one in every six people will be over the age of 65. After the age of 65, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD) doubles every five years. According to the Alzheimer´s Association, an estimated 50 million people of all ages are living with AD worldwide in 2019. Populations residing in developing countries exhibit more cases than those residing in developed countries. Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias cost to the US are expected to increase from 305 billion in 2020 to approximately 1.1 trillion by 2050.  

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals push for an increase in medical research for non-communicable diseases that affect developing countries. Sustainability Fellow Armando Garces along with his mentor Dr. Upal Roy of the Department of Health and Biomedical Sciences will investigate the function of two specific genes in the neurodegeneration pathway. This research will allow for the identification of a potential target for early therapeutic intervention. In collaboration with Dr. Gladys Maestre, the impact of neighborhood-level factors and social determinants (education, health conditions, socioeconomic status, culture) have on the development of Alzheimer’s disease will also be explored. This project is aimed to develop a solution that will significantly reduce the detection and treatment cost of AD, lifting a great socioeconomic burden on underserved populations both in the Rio Grande Valley and across the globe.  

good health and well being 



La Frontera: A Vehicle for Sustainable Engagement in Education  

Sustianability Fellows: Jacqueline Lopez

Parental involvement tends to decrease as students advance into secondary education (Brough & Irvin, 2001). According to studies conducted on 41 Maryland elementary schools, positive correlation has been identified between parental involvement and student success regardless of socioeconomic standing or race. Many schools have been unsuccessful in engaging parents and increasing parental involvement in students’ education (Griffith, 1996). Promoting parental engagement in their students’ education can help schools improve student success regardless of socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.  

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals challenge education systems to further equitable and quality primary and secondary education for students around the world. Sustainability Fellow Jacqueline Lopez has been selected to collaborate with La Frontera, a team K-12 students, parents, and teachers from Weslaco ISD that are transforming their local community through quality education and leadership development. The chief goal is to increase the number of parental leaders in La Frontera and co-create sustainable engagement strategies with educators that increase successful student educational outcomes. 

 no poverty quality education decent work and economic growth


Brough, J., & Irvin, J. (2001). What Research Says: Parental Involvement Supports Academic Improvement Among Middle Schoolers. Middle School Journal, 32(5), 56-61. Retrieved April 1, 2020, from  

Griffith, J. (1996). Relation of Parental Involvement, Empowerment, and School Traits to Student Academic Performance. The Journal of Educational Research, 90(1), 33-41. Retrieved April 2, 2020, from  


Sustainability for Health: Monitoring Creatinine in Saliva for Preventive Kidney Disease 

Sustianability Fellows: Raul Espinosa 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 37 million Americans suffer from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). 90% of people with CKD are unaware they suffer from it. With the rise of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity in developing countries, CKD is only becoming more prevalentThe most common method for monitoring the progress of CKD is by blood sample analysis, however, samples must be taken frequently which puts severe stress on the patient and represents a risk for the medical provider who analyzes the sample. Additionally, there is a large amount of waste generated through this process that must be disposed of following specific protocols.  

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals push for an increase in medical research for non-communicable diseases that affect developing countriesSustainability fellow Raul Espinosa from the MSIS program and his research advisor Ahmed Touhami from UTRGV Physics Department aim to create a biosensor capable of detecting suspicious levels of Creatinine in saliva (which are a sign of CKD), which will make the analysis faster and safer, while also reducing the waste generated through blood sampling.  

good health  



The Physical Study of Perfluoro-Compounds and Their Interactions with Water for Sustainable Development  

Sustianability Fellows: Karla Salazar 

 Perfluorinated compounds are man-made chemicals that have been classified as emergent contaminants by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 2014. Due to their previously wide use in the manufacturing industry and their high molecular stability, high amounts of bioaccumulation have been found in ocean water, groundwater, air, plants, sediments, animals, and humanacross the globe. Studies have shown correlations between animals with increased Perfluorinated compound accumulations and certain health issues, including fetal developmental disorders, neurotoxicity, inhibited cholesterol metabolism functioning, carcinogenesis, and thyroid disease. In human epidemiological studies, increased serum cholesterol, and a positive correlation between prostate and pancreatic cancer was observed.  

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) look to substantially reduce the number of hazardous chemicals and environmental pollution to provide safe environments for marine life and equitable drinking water for communities around the globe. Aligning with the SDGs motivated a collaborative research project between The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Xiamen University Malaysia to identify methods to remove Perfluorinated compounds from water sources. Sustainability Fellow Karla Salazar has been selected to work with the chemistry department to conduct further research of PFOS by studying its precursor, Fluorosulfonic acid, to provide insights for potential water filtration mechanisms.  



Lehmler, H.-J. (2005, January 18). Synthesis of environmentally relevant fluorinated surfactants-a review. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from  

Liu, W.-X., He, W., Wu, J.-Y., Wu, W.-J., & Xu, F.-L. (2019, February 18). Effects of fluorescent dissolved organic matters (FDOMs) on perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) in lake and river water. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from  

Yamashita, N., Kannan, K., Taniyasu, S., Horii, Y., Petrick, G., & Gamo, T. (2005, May 23). A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from  

Sergi, C. M. (2019, September 12). Perfluorooctanoic Acid-A Water and Oil Repellent. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from 

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals life below water with 


Beyond the Score: The Growth and Enhancement of Music Education in the Rio Grande Valley  

Sustianability Fellows: Mauricio Castellano 

Studies have shown a correlation between students that receive music education and higher academic and standardized test scores. The Rio Grande Valley (RGV) is known for its rich culture and outstanding music programs, however, it also falls victim to some of the highest rates of economically disadvantaged students and insufficient funding resources for their teachers. This does not mean, however, that all students underperform. 2019 served as an example of overcoming layers of adversity with several schools achieving some of the highest honors available in the Fine Arts.  The approach and methods utilized by these outstanding programs in the RGV and programs from around the nation are valuable in creating effective and efficient learning environments, which can lead to greater student success both within and outside of the classroom. 

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals push to further equitable and quality primary and secondary education for students around the world Sustainability Fellow Mauricio Castellano and advisor Dr. Mark Ramirez are conducting research methods to create an efficient and effective music education model, which will enhance student's quality of music and academic education.   



Sustainability in Disaster Studies

Sustianability Fellows: Reginald McKinley

Description coming soon


Renewable Energy Transition Research 

Sustianability Fellows: Diego Alonso, Jaafar Mouhamad, Rene Galvan

72% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the energy sector and the U.S. is the highest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita. Over the next 30 years, a major transition to renewable energy is needed to evade the detrimental effects that climate change on our environment, social and economic systems.   

By 2030, The United Nations has set the goal to substantially increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy economyDriven to meet the Sustainable Development goals, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is preparing to make the necessary steps to begin transitioning to green energy opportunities. Sustainability Fellows Diego Alonso and Jaafar Mouhamad have been selected to conduct research and feasibility studies into implementing various renewable energy initiatives on campus.    


Zero Waste Initiative 

Sustianability Fellows: Zachary Johnson, Omar Vazquez Perez

It is well recorded that waste from landfills contributes to detrimental effects on the health of our society and our environment. Toxic chemicals that breakdown from plastics contaminate the soil and water and find their way into food and drinking water. Landfills also contribute to the excess production of methane (which has 30 times more powerful warming effect than carbon) exponentially increases the warming of the planet.  

The reduction of waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse strategies is one of the primary objectives the United Nations has set for Sustainable Development Goals for the global community. Considering the amount of waste that Universities produce, the Uuniversity of Texas Rio Grande Valley is focused to identify different waste aversion solutions that are also economically sound. Sustainability Fellows Omar Vazquez Perez and Zachary Johnson have been selected to conduct waste audits to identify the amount of waste currently going to the landfills and various opportunities to create diversion strategies. 





Sustainability Marketing 

To create a more sustainable society, the global community must be aware and informed of the issues that affect our economic, social, and environmental systems. By sharing the most up-to-date research findings, business and scientific innovations, and policy adaptations, institutions and citizens can collaborate on best practices and accelerate the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.  

With the multitude of sustainable initiatives taking place at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Sustainability Fellows Nubia Reyna and Nallely Salazar have been selected to document, highlight, and share the sustainability achievements of our campus community with the Rio Grande Valley and beyond.  


Combating Food Insecurity 

Sustainability Fellows: Jeffrey Aquino-Gomez, Shreya Udawant, Mauricio Pena

High rates of student food insecurity have been identified on many college campuses around the U.S. Food insecurity is defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of a lack of money and other resources. However, beyond this definition, there are human behavior and environmental factors that add further complexity to the issue.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals challenge the world to fortify food systems and end hunger by ensuring sufficient access to nutritious foods. Due to the prevalence of household food insecurity within the Rio Grande Valley, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley administrative leadership wanted to begin tracking rates of food insecurity as well as find local solutions to address it on campus.

Sustainability Fellows Shreya Udawant, Jeffrey Gomez and Mauricio Pena, and research advisers Dr. Mirayda Torres-Avila and Forrest Sparks, led the imitative by conducted research and provided on-campus solutions with university stakeholders. A Human-Centered Design approach was used to gain a greater context of cultural and behavioral components that surround the issue.

Click Here to view the Combating Food Insecurity case study.

Project Outcomes

Based on the research findings, The Office of Professional Education and Workforce Development with support of the Office for Sustainability is partnering with Baptist Student Ministries Global Blends restaurant to provide healthy meals and produce bags for students. Part of the produce used will be sourced by local farms and the prices will be on a “pay what you can basis.” Find more information about the Sustainable Food Initative here.




Green House Gas Emissions Inventory (Spring 2019)  

Sustainability Fellows: Diego Lopez

  • Project description coming soon



New Information about our Sustainability Fellowship Program to be added


Sustainability Fellowships are available only to new, full-time graduate students who will enroll in any Master’s or doctoral program at UTRGV for the first time.  Continuing UTRGV graduate students are not eligible. These fellowships cannot be combined with other graduate fellowships such as those from NIH, NSF, DOD, or USDA, etc.



A total of $15,000 will be awarded to each student in three separate installments; $6,250 in Spring 2019; $2,500 in Summer 2019 and $6,250 in Fall 2019. The fellowship funding will be directly applied to student’s tuition & fees bill for a minimum of 9 credit hours in Spring semester, 9 in Fall semester and 3 in Summer term; the remaining amount will be available to the student after the census day during each semester/term.



In addition to pursuing their graduate program, the Sustainability Fellows are expected to engage in an impactful sustainability and community resilience project within or outside the university coordinated by the UTRGV Office of Sustainability. To maintain the fellowship, student awardees are required to (i) submit a project progress report at the end of each semester/term and (ii) maintain a minimum OGPA of 3.20.   


Application Procedure

Interested students may apply for Sustainability Fellowships by downloading this application and submitting it complete with a one to two page statement describing their interest and experience in sustainability to:

Interested applicants must also simultaneously complete their application for admission to a Masters or doctoral program at the UTRGV Graduate College Website .  New students who have already applied for admission or have already been admitted to start from Fall 2019 may also apply for consideration of a Sustainability Fellowship award.


Selection criteria and Process

UTRGV’s Chief Sustainability Officer and the Graduate College Dean will review all applications and will make final selection of the candidates.  Graduate College Dean will notify the graduate program coordinator, department chair, college dean, and the student about the award and will also send congratulatory letters to all awardees.

Graduate Student FAQ's

  • Will this conflict with my studies?
    • The Sustainability Fellowship is intended to contribute to your academic career, not detract from it. Your Office for Sustainability research project can be part of your graduate student research, or can take the place of it entirely (with close communication with your graduate faculty advisor.)
  • How much time do Sustainability Fellows commit?
    • Sustainability Fellows are expected to contribute up to 15 hours per week of research at the OFS office or as instructed.

If you do not find the answer to your question above, do not hesitate to call us at (956) 665-3030.