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Students, Faculty Mentor Honored at Graduate School Symposium

Thu, 05/26/2022 - 08:31am

Two graduate assistants and a faculty member were recognized for excellence in research, teaching and service by The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Graduate School at its annual Susan A. Siltanen Graduate Student Research Symposium held in April at the Thad Cochran Center on the Hattiesburg campus.

*Limarie J. Reyes-Torres, a Ph.D. candidate in Biological Sciences, was named Graduate Research Assistant of the Year. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, she was nominated by her major professor, Dr. Donald Yee.

With eight peer-reviewed publications and seven as first author, Reyes-Torres has already demonstrated outstanding productivity. She is fully supported as an NIH fellow, receiving the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award-Individual Predoctoral Fellowship to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research. This highly competitive award demonstrates her ability to write a successful grant application and conduct high-level research.

Her dissertation research focuses on ecological interactions, nutrient stoichiometry, and vector competence of the mosquito Aedes aegypti, and will help determine the influence of urbanization in the larval environment, species performance, and fecundity across generations. Reyes-Torres is also evaluating the effect of these components on the mosquito vector competence (capacity to acquire, maintain, and transmit a pathogen) for dengue virus, and is using nutrient stoichiometry to help define biologically relevant and unknown relationships influencing the susceptibility of mosquitoes to arboviral infections and their ability to transmit arboviruses to humans across urban environments.

Dr. Yee noted that Reyes-Torres is an important member of his research team exploring how mosquitoes were affected in San Juan, Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, rating her as being among the top five percent of students at a similar point in their career. “Her motivation for research and teaching are an extension of some of the challenges she faced as a student in Puerto Rico, which historically has had issues with providing the best opportunities for its students,” Dr. Yee continued. “Even as a high school student, Limarie has consistently looked for additional opportunities to give back, including tutoring or mentoring other students. This quality is an important one for a scientist given the mentoring nature of the scientific process.”

Reyes-Torres is very active in outreach and education activities for the university and the community; among her exceptional credentials, she holds certifications in vector-borne disease management from the Mississippi Department of Health and as an advanced mosquito identification specialist from the University of Florida.

*Alicia L. Macchione, a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Brain and Behavior program in the School of Psychology, earned the Teaching Assistant of the Year award. A native of Bloomington, Indiana, she was nominated for the recognition by her major professor, Dr. Don Sacco.

Macchione has been highly productive in research, having already published five peer-reviewed articles with four more either in preparation or under review, and she is coauthor of three book chapters. She has given numerous presentations in either oral or poster format in national-level professional conferences and is a research fellow on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that focuses on factors facilitating adherence to social distancing policies.

Between Fall of 2020 and Spring 2021, she served as the graduate assistant for multiple psychology courses, with the responsibility of grading and mentoring students in need and received ‘Excellent’ ratings from all evaluations. Outside of her assistance with students in classes for which she served as a graduate assistant, she mentored undergraduate students within the Evolutionary Social Psychology Laboratory and helped four students receive funding from the Center for Undergraduate Research (EagleSPUR awards) to support their independent research projects and have trained them in how to program their studies, collect and analyze data, and prepare manuscripts for publication.

In the summer of 2021, she accepted a graduate assistantship in the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), supervised by Dr. Samuel Bruton, where she was responsible for helping the University make the transition between IRB submission portals. That dual appointment continued during the spring 2022 semester. 

“I think what’s most impressive about Alicia is the fact that fall 2021 was the first semester in which she was an instructor of record, and her first course was Statistics in the Behavioral Sciences. This is considered the most challenging course for students in psychology to master, and instructors spend a significant amount of time in office hours providing additional tutoring in course content,” Dr. Sacco said.

Regarding her dual appointment with ORI, Dr. Sacco further noted, “one might think that this would be too much for a third-year graduate student to balance, especially being so new to teaching. However, Alicia has excelled in all aspects of her employment. She received exemplary teaching evaluations for her statistics class (overall instructor rating: 4.8/5), and submitted two first author manuscripts, among other achievements.”

*Dr. Dan Capron, a faculty member in the College of Education and Human Science’s School of Psychology, received the Mentor of the Year award at the symposium.

Dr. Capron is a Nina Bell Suggs Professor of Clinical Psychology and a licensed clinical psychologist. He earned his Ph.D. from Florida State University in 2015 and joined the faculty at USM that same year. Dr. Capron has published dozens of peer-reviewed articles, a book and two book chapters. He and his students have presented their work at many professional conferences across the country, and he is PI or co-PI on grants and contracts totaling more than $5 million. He served or is serving as major professor for two doctoral students and three master’s students, and has served on numerous graduate committees.

Dr. Capron was nominated by his clinical psychology Ph.D. student Ava Fergerson for this award. She noted his concern for his students’ professional success after completing the degree. Fergerson also mentioned specific successes, including writing successful grant proposals for NIH (National Institutes of Health) fellowships, presenting work at prestigious national conferences, and having manuscripts accepted into high-impact journals, which she credits to his mentorship expectations. In addition, she cited his organization of annual research summits with other R1 institutions to provide opportunities to network with experts in innovative research methods and get feedback on grant applications. 

Another Ph.D. student, Nicole Caulfield, also supported his nomination. In describing his mentorship style, she noted, “I believe his students’ success is due to Dr. Capron’s effort to provide direction for self-improvement and reflection in a transparent and constructive manner. He is understanding of individual student needs and provides clear expectations on how students can achieve jobs in academia or research. His leadership has created a lab that has a collaborative, welcoming atmosphere because that is what Dr. Capron fosters. He is professional in all his interactions, but importantly, he is also approachable and kind.”

In her endorsement of him for the award, Dr. Capron’s colleague Dr. Kelsey Bonfils said “While he is very supportive, Dan has high expectations for his mentees. This is demonstrated through his mentees’ consistently high levels of success. He has had two graduate students complete the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program, and both have gone on to productive research careers at a VA postdoctoral position and a faculty appointment at a top research institution. These are fabulous outcomes for students from our program.”  Moreover, she also noted he models professionalism and helps both students and faculty colleagues achieve their personal goals.

“Graduate student mentoring has been one of the most challenging and humbling aspects of the job, so this recognition is incredibly meaningful to me because I've put so much effort into improving as a mentor,” Dr. Capron said.

For more information about the USM Graduate School and its annual Susan A. Siltanen Graduate Student Research Symposium, visit