Earth and Mineral Sciences student awarded Sloan Minority Graduate Scholarship

Steph Krane
May 15, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Kelly Núñez Ocasio, a Penn State doctoral candidate studying how hurricanes form, has received an Alfred P. Sloan Minority Graduate Scholarship.

The Sloan Scholars program, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, provides support to students belonging to underrepresented minority groups who are also enrolled in a doctoral degree program in a STEM field.

Nuñez Ocasio, a fourth year doctoral student in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, said the honor means more to her than just the funding the scholarship provides.

“It’s my responsibility as a Latina to help younger generations and build a community of scientists that is diverse and that is equal,” Nuñez Ocasio said.

That commitment to improving diversity in math and science fields is the cornerstone of the Sloan Scholars program. With the funding, Nuñez Ocasio has had the opportunity to travel to conferences across the country, including the American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting Conference in January. There she won first place for her talk about her research surrounding African Easterly Waves.

African Easterly Waves are low-pressure systems in the atmosphere that form over Africa and move west across the coast. They propagate westward across the tropical and subtropical North Atlantic and can reach the Caribbean Sea and western North Atlantic. Some African Easterly Waves become hurricanes, like Hurricane María, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

Raised in Puerto Rico, Núñez Ocasio’s work focuses on tropical meteorology, with an interest in how hurricanes form. She completed her undergraduate education at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, earning degrees in theoretical physics and atmospheric science.

During that time, she participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program where she pursued research on African Easterly Waves and African climate with Jenni Evans, professor of meteorology and director of the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences at Penn State. It was that experience that encouraged Núñez Ocasio to pursue her doctorate at Penn State, which she is scheduled to complete in May 2021.

Núñez Ocasio received the Advanced Study Program (ASP) Graduate Student Visitor Fellowship and will spend this fall doing research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. The Sloan Foundation is helping to fund her expenses for the fall.

For now, Núñez Ocasio doesn’t have to go too far to reap the benefits of being a Sloan Scholar. In fact, she says one of the the best parts about the program has been the connections she’s made with her fellow Penn Staters.

“Last year I was invited to go to a conference that brought all the Sloan Scholars together,” she said. “There I met with all the other Penn State Sloan Scholars, and we’ve stayed connected. We try to meet up at least once a month, and that’s been a great support group.”

In addition to her research and the connections she’s made, Núñez Ocasio values her ability to be a mentor to incoming graduate students, especially those who share her background.

“Every time there is an incoming Latino or Latina student, I mentor them not only in the research and academia aspect, but in the life aspect as well,” she said. “To me, it’s a really important part of being a graduate student.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021