Azusa Pacific University graduate student Leo Jimenez Chavez was awarded the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRF). The grant will fully fund his studies for the next three years. Students selected for the NSF GRF benefit from an annual stipend of $34,000 for three years, a $12,000 allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution. Previous recipients of the fellowship include former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin, Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, and numerous Nobel Prize winners.

A student in the inaugural class of APU’s Master of Science in Research Psychology and Data Analytics program, Chavez was one of only 2,000 applicants nationwide to receive the competitive grant, sought by more than 13,000 students across all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. He applied for the grant under the mentorship of Teresa Pegors, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.

“Congratulations to Leo and his advisor, Dr. Pegors,” said Kathryn Ecklund, Ph.D., chair and professor in the Department of Psychology. “This award demonstrates the caliber of mentorship at APU which offers tenacious students like Leo an opportunity to advance the depth and breadth of scholarship in their fields.”

“Leo is extremely persistent, one of the qualities good scientists exhibit,” said Pegors. Chavez’s strong character came across to the judges as a sign of his potential for conducting outstanding research that could make a powerful impact. “This fellowship program doesn't just look for smart students, but for those who have the potential to change their world,” she said. “These criteria reflect APU's mission of using academic rigor to cultivate difference makers.”

As part of Chavez’s application process for the grant, he submitted a proposal on his current research project, “Restoration and Natural Environments,” in which he uses virtual reality to test whether natural work environments lower stress levels and increase creativity. “It is difficult to study these effects because laboratory environments are artificial,” said Pegors. “Leo uses virtual reality to bridge this gap, simulating outdoor settings in order to measure cognitive and physiological benefits more precisely.”

Chavez gathers data by measuring participants’ heart rates as they move through simulated urban and natural environments. “Conclusive evidence could imply that natural stimuli in office buildings and classrooms increase productivity and profit,” said Chavez. “Through my research project, I am learning the significance of patience, perseverance, and passion while solidifying my vision to create solutions and develop cures that will help future generations thrive with a healthier quality of life.”

Chavez plans to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he will receive two additional years of fellowship funding studying drug use and addiction in animal models under the guidance of Karen Szumlinski, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience and behavior. “This fellowship enables me to fulfill my dream of becoming an educator while researching neuroscience,” said Chavez. “Many doors to new research possibilities have opened, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”