University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee Campus



Spring 2021 Commencement

USF Sarasota-Manatee Campus Insider May 2021

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The University of South Florida will hold in-person commencement ceremonies this weekend for the first time since December 2019, as COVID-19 forced ceremonies to be held virtually in the spring, summer and fall of 2020. USF President Steven Currall will preside over spring commencement ceremonies scheduled for 9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 8, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

Approximately 7,200 degrees will be awarded to the spring 2021 class, including 5,206 undergraduate, 1,691 master’s, 289 doctoral and 12 specialist’s degrees. 

The graduates represent all 50 U.S. states and 100 nations, with 67 undergraduate students earning a perfect 4.0 GPA. The youngest graduate is a 17 year old earning bachelor’s degrees in both biomedical sciences and public health. The oldest graduate is a 69 year old earning a bachelor’s degree in history.

Among those to overcome unique challenges posed by COVID-19 in order to graduate this spring is the first cohort of 30 students from USF’s accelerated second-degree nursing pathway, based at the Sarasota-Manatee campus.

The pathway enables students with bachelor’s degrees to return to school to earn a nursing degree through an intensive 16-month instructional period. Launched in January 2020, right before the start of the pandemic, the pathway was forced to shift entirely online for several months. Students were eventually able to resume in-person activities in their high-tech simulation lab on campus and in clinical settings in local hospitals. Despite the unexpected hurdles, not one student left the program, which was introduced to address the shortage of nurses regionally and statewide.

“During the past 16 months of study, this wonderful group of students never failed to impress me,” said College of Nursing Assistant Professor Natasha Zurcher, director of the accelerated nursing degree pathway at the campus. “Despite many challenges, they continually encouraged one another and never gave up. This speaks volumes not only about their heart, but also about their dedication toward improving health outcomes for our communities. This truly is a very special cohort and I couldn’t be prouder of them.” 

A pre-recorded pinning ceremony for the students is scheduled on Thursday. The students will need to pass the state licensing exam before becoming registered nurses. However, as graduate nurses they can accept positions at hospitals and clinics pending the exam, and many students have already lined up jobs, Zurcher said.

Among those, Teren Culver recently accepted a new position. She thanked Zurcher and other faculty for their encouragement and guidance and said the students were strongly united, as they were anxious to join health professionals in the fight against COVID.

“I know for me, it lit a flame to hurry up so I could be on the front lines to be able to help the community,” Culver said.

Another student, Lauren Bedford, said that the spirit of camaraderie among faculty and students during the program impressed her.

“When the summer came, we were able to get into the skills lab, and some of the clinicals resumed, and from there it kept building and building,” Bedford said. “There was a lot of support from students, but the biggest support came from our professors.”

Several graduates from the Sarasota-Manatee campus will receive special recognition during the ceremonies. Four students will be named recipients of the Golden Bull Award for service and leadership: Scarleth Andino, Jennifer Eubanks, Joshua Ghansiam and Nicole Ritenour.

“I have met some of the most compassionate and caring professors at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus who, along with my fellow students, are truly dedicated to success,” said Ghansiam, who served as student governor at the campus. “One piece of advice I would share with incoming students is to not be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and do something new, because it will lead you to new places and experiences.”

Additionally, four King O’Neal Scholars – Cristen Hobbs, Lianna Kaikova, Jeams Richard Costa and Nicole Ritenour – will be recognized for achieving a perfect 4.0 GPA.

“The King O'Neal Scholar is something that I've worked incredibly hard for,” said Ritenour, the only Sarasota-Manatee student to win both awards. “Being a mother of three children while juggling full-time classes, internships, research assistantships and the Psychology Club taught me how to productively manage my time, how to persevere even during hardships and how much I truly love academia and research. I am not the same person I was two years ago. That’s for sure.

“My advice for incoming freshman and transfer students is to never be afraid to approach your professors,” she said. “They want to see you succeed, and they genuinely care about you. My other piece of advice is to enjoy each day at USF, because before you know it you will be graduating. Take advantage of all that the university has to offer.”

Among those to heed that advice was graduating senior Kiarra Louis. The professional and technical communication major worked with Career Services, Jay Riley, director of business outreach and community engagement, and former campus CEO Laurey Stryker to acquire three internships. She landed two internships at the Florida Health Department and the third at the Patterson Foundation in Sarasota, which led to a full-time position.

“USF Sarasota-Manatee is a special place,” Louis said. “All of the professors make themselves available to you and everyone cheers you on when you succeed, and I mean everyone, from the students to the faculty and staff.”

The 9 a.m. ceremony will feature graduates from the colleges of Behavioral and Community Sciences, Muma College of Business, Education, Morsani College of Medicine, Nursing, Taneja College of Pharmacy and Public Health. The 6:30 p.m. ceremony will include graduates from the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Patel College of Global Sustainability, Marine Science and The Arts, as well as Undergraduate Studies and Graduate Studies.

Using guidance from experts in USF Health, the ceremonies will have COVID-19 protocols in place for safety purposes. All graduates and attendees are required to wear face coverings and graduates will be seated six feet apart to accommodate for physical distancing. Each graduate will be honored individually during the ceremony by having their name called and briefly standing to be recognized.

Holding the ceremonies in a venue the size of Tropicana Field allows USF to accommodate the number of students earning a degree this spring and provide enough space for some family members to attend. Each graduate is permitted to bring two guests to their ceremony with live streaming available for those who can’t be there in person.

Live streaming will be available through the following links:

USF also intends to honor graduates from spring 2020, summer 2020 and fall 2020 who were unable to participate in person due to COVID-19.  While this weekend’s ceremonies are limited to spring 2021 graduates, those past graduates and their families will be invited back for a more traditional commencement at a future date when COVID-19 restrictions can be reduced.

USF students learn the value of empathy, creative thinking in new collaboration with Ringling Art Museum

Students from the University of South Florida are teaming up with the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota as part of an effort to deliver Ringling’s programming to people with Alzheimer’s disease and other disabilities.

The collaboration took place this past semester in a virtual format, but will continue with in-person museum visits when restrictions around COVID-19 are lifted. Its aim is to connect people with cognitive disorders, sensory impairments and others to art from the Ringling collection. Working with Ringling staff, students would initiate discussions about art within the groups.

“The idea is to use structured conversation around art to reduce anxiety and social isolation by providing a safe atmosphere in which participants are able to express a personal connection to the art they’re viewing,” said Catherine Wilkins, an instructor in the Judy Genshaft Honors College at USF. “Although this is not art therapy, strictly speaking, engaging in these types of activities has been shown to have a therapeutic effect.”

Wilkins worked with the museum, Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the Alzheimer's Association and other organizations to create a new Honors course focused on arts and health at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, about a mile north of the museum.


Laura Kulcsar, Riffatul Islam and Samantha Desautels

The semester-long class was designed to introduce students to research about the holistic health benefits of engaging with art, while also preparing them to interact with Ringling’s clients on a voluntary basis once COVID-19 restrictions have eased. Fifteen Honors students, including many from the Sarasota-Manatee campus, participated in the class, which wrapped up last week.

“It was very multi-sided and involved a lot of discussion,” accounting major Samantha Desautels said of the course. “A lot of it was about observation and listening and thinking about a piece of artwork and considering different viewpoints.”

The students viewed several Ringling works online then discussed their responses and what the artist was perhaps conveying. There were no incorrect answers as the students let their intellect and imagination guide their responses.

They also heard from experts about how to facilitate discussions for people with Alzheimer’s, and they engaged in research that could potentially lead to new programs for people with other disabilities and for doctors and nurses as well.

“What I liked most about the class was the flexibility of the discussions,” said Laura Kulcsar, a biology major. “You can look at a piece of art and appreciate it and then hear from someone else about what they think. Everybody responds differently.” 

Nicolete Kulcsar, Laura’s sister and also a biology major, said: “I liked being able to listen to people describe something in detail, and ask why they said what they said. It helped give me insight and understanding into what is going on in other people’s lives.”

Many of the students said they signed up for the class because they liked the idea of helping others and trying something different from their usual course work.

Pre-med biology major Riffatul Islam, incoming student governor at the Sarasota-Manatee campus, said the class was just what the doctor ordered. With a course schedule heavy on science-based classes, Islam said he appreciated the opportunity to take a class that emphasized creative, artistic thinking.   

“It was very inter-disciplinary,” he said. “You get to conduct research, but you also engage in creative activities and learn about different types of mental health issues. It gives you insight into how art can have an impact psychologically. It’s great for mental health.”

Laura Steefel-Moore, head of educational programming at the Ringling Museum, said she was delighted to work with the students. Wilkins approached her last year after hearing about the Ringling Reflections program for people with dementia.

“Every time I’ve had a discussion with the class they’ve just been so engaged and receptive,” Steefel-Moore said. “A lot of what we’re doing is practicing facilitating conversations around works of art, and the students have been very open-minded about this. This is not meant to be an art history class or be lecture-based. They have to be able to lead discussions that are grounded in kindness and empathy.”

The museum’s Ringling Reflections tours, currently held virtually, allow people with dementia and their caregivers to engage in conversations around four artworks from the museum’s collection. The program enables participants to communicate with one another and with museum educators in a safe, relaxed environment.

Steefel-Moore added that by teaming up with the students, the museum might be able to expand Ringling Reflections. Based on research generated by the students, the museum has begun exploring the idea of offering programming to foster children. 

“We would love to continue our collaboration with USF, and we’re hoping that more students will take the class,” Steefel-Moore said. “The more we can engage with students to help them better understand all that the museum has to offer, the better connected we become with our local community. It is a privilege to work alongside the USF students.”

Denise Davis-Cotton delivers emotional presentation to SHRA

You could have heard a pin drop as Denise Davis-Cotton from the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus spoke (and sang) about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion at a recent gathering of professionals from the Sarasota-Manatee Human Resources Association (SHRA).

Davis-Cotton, who serves as the director of the Florida Center for Partnerships in Arts Integrated Teaching (PAInT), based at the Sarasota-Manatee campus, co-presented, “The Art of Building Bridges in Businesses,” along with social entrepreneur and speaker Shannon Rohrer-Phillips. The event was held at the Grove Restaurant as part of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance’s luncheon series.

Davis-Cotton shared stories of her personal and professional journey. An esteemed educator and author, she talked about growing up in Montgomery, Ala., and experiencing key moments in the civil rights movement as a young person and her role as founder and principal of the Detroit School of the Arts, so that students could have access to the arts. “All students should have access to an equal education,” she said. “Education is a civil right.”

She then shared a story about a chance encounter with USF Sarasota-Manatee Regional Chancellor Karen Holbrook.

Davis-Cotton said that Holbrook stopped her one day as she was walking across campus and said, “‘I want to know who you are, let’s have lunch. I know what you do, but I want to know more about who you are.’ That was the moment I knew that I was not hired to be a checkbox for diversity. I knew that the University of South Florida was a place where I belonged. And, there is a difference. She stepped out of her space in senior leadership, and she and I became equal partners in promoting the mission of the university. And I just want to say thank you.”


Denise Davis-Cotton

Davis-Cotton went on to say, “I stand here today as the embodiment of all that you are studying. My life’s journey started with segregation, it moved to integration and now, sadly, we’re in an era of polarization. Do not let that happen in your places of business. It’s time to make a change and identify the inequities of minoritized groups. Diversity isn’t a noun, it’s an action word. You have to act beyond the numbers. You have to act toward belonging, equity and inclusion.”

Davis-Cotton quoted Davisha Amonte Jackson, who said, “People don’t fear change, they fear loss,” and she then gave a great analogy by comparing diversity to a party.

“Diversity means you have been asked to the party. You got the invitation; you’re there. Belonging means that you feel welcomed and comfortable going to the party…”

She then trailed off and told a story about an encounter with a man in Sarasota when she was speaking. A white man came up to her and said, “You are black and a woman in Sarasota, and you have to be very careful where you walk up to a mic and speak.”

She said she knew at that time – despite the denigration and an aggressive insult – that her work had to be getting to the last stage of inclusion, which means you have been asked to plan the party, like today, when I have been asked to help you on your course to plan your diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.”

She explained that, “Equity refines what the party entails and who has the power to plan the party. This incorporates all structures of power. It incorporates all structures of privilege and privileges. It eliminates the disparities of historically underrepresented groups from the boardroom to the workrooms. ”

She encouraged managers to talk and listen to the voices of their employees because they bring value and vision.

She then quoted, Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

She built upon that by saying, “A coward asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it political?’ And vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ This is our challenge, not only to do the right thing, but also to do the right thing right. It’s hard work.”

She asked the audience of HR professionals if they are recruiting for belonging and inclusion, and how they define diversity and inclusion, a question that they should be prepared to answer during interviews with potential employees.

She said that, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave leaders. It’s not about race, it’s not about gender, it’s about belonging. It’s about inclusion. It’s about seeing people, hearing their voices. It’s a lot of deep, deep listening.”

She concluded her presentation by asking how we can build bridges.

“How will you reflect the cultural landscape of our society, community and of your workforce? Change. Transformation. As I said earlier, people do not fear change, they fear loss. ... They wonder if their supervisor still values them. Nobody likes change but a wet baby.

“So how can we build the bridge?” asked Davis-Cotton.

She said many people start with diversity, but it needs to start with access.

“If you start with access and move to belonging and inclusion, you will build diversity and inclusion,” she said. “It starts with your level of comfort and cultural competency. Let’s look at the different levels, where you begin as a person, from your individual level, to interpersonal communications that drive the institution and make it structural. It’s the valuing of inclusive excellence.

“Diversity is a mosaic of people who bring a variety of backgrounds, styles, perspectives, values and beliefs as assets to the group and to the organization. Go and learn about different cultures. Learn about what it means for groups, groups of difference, who may face assimilation pressures or pressures to conform to a dominant culture. Inclusion is an equity of practices, equity in voice. Businesses are most affected adversely by the socio-economic and social complexities of the challenges rooted in inequity.

“Support individuality. Make appropriate adjustments. Examine your departmental configurations; they are connectors for success. Believe that all employees can succeed and progress. Do you consider race, ethnicity, heritage, religious beliefs for members to sit on your search committees?

“So where do we go from here? Businesses are a microcosm of society. Businesses are an inclusion of all voices and vision. The diversity of people and perspectives, equity and policies and practices. To help make this a wonderful world, hire across all variables, avoid stereotypes. Eliminate aggression. Leaders are key influencers. How decisions-makers perceive the employees acknowledges the inclusion of vision, voice, diversity, perspective, equity in policies, practice and procedures. … Do your part to make it a wonderful world.”

Davis-Cotton then sang a stirring rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” leaving those in attendance speechless and many in tears.

Marie Byrd wins WPL Award for her research

USF Associate Professor Marie Byrd has been named the recipient of a USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Award for her research involving the social and emotional learning of Black girls.

Byrd, the interim Sarasota-Manatee campus director for the College of Education, has focused her scholarship on the intersectionality of race and gender for school-aged Black girls and the resulting complexity in their social, emotional and academic development.

marie byrd

Marie Byrd

The WLP award, announced last week, stems specifically from Byrd’s work involving a place-based, after-school program for K-6 children at an apartment complex in Sarasota. The program, developed by Byrd in October 2019 through a grant from United Way Suncoast, provided homework and reading support, social and emotional skills training and character building for the children.

“I’m honored to receive this award, but this is not about me,” Byrd said. “This is about the necessary research of the social and emotional learning of Black girls and the facilitation of needed support in schools and in out-of-school programs. I’m honored that this work is being recognized.”

The award comes at a critical time, as attention is shifting toward the rising disciplinary rates of Black girls in comparison to boys and girls of other races and ethnicities. Nationally, Black girls experience discipline rates six times higher than white girls and experience suspension rates that are higher than 67 percent of boys, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

Byrd said she intends to use the $5,000 WLP grant award to delve deeper into social-emotional learning and to expand her research to include the results of in-school and out-of-school programs nationwide.

“This work has not been given the attention it fully deserves, and this grant will help to further this research and lay the foundation for future grants to provide more change in this critical area,” Byrd said.

Zacharias Pieri receives Humanities Institute Summer Grant

The USF College of Arts and Sciences Humanities Institute has awarded a $5,000 grant to Zacharias Pieri, an assistant professor of international relations and security studies, to help broaden his research into white supremacist music.

Pieri, who has built a database of more than 800 songs associated with the white power movement, said the Humanities Institute Summer Grant will enable him to deepen his research into the songs’ hateful, often violent content.

zach pieri

Zacharias Pieri

“This funding will help me to set aside dedicated research time in the summer that will allow me to analyze a number of these white supremacist songs to identify key themes,” he said.

Pieri, a Sarasota-Manatee campus faculty member, compiled the songs during the past two years, working with Jessica Grosholz, an associate professor of criminology, to catalog and analyze the music and its influence on the movement.

Last October, the Department of Homeland Security reported that white supremacists and other “domestic violent extremists” remain “the most persistent and lethal threat” to the nation.

Pieri applied for the grant in the spring. Each year, the Humanities Institute awards up to 10 $5,000 grants to USF faculty to facilitate summer research. The grants are highly competitive, and summer grant recipients must demonstrate a record of innovative and compelling research. Funding for the awards was provided by the USF Office of Research and Innovation.

Once easily accessible on sites such as Facebook, Spotify and YouTube, the songs are becoming more difficult to find as social media sites become faster at identifying and removing them. That pushes much of the content to alt-right sites and the “dark web.” The songs also are featured prominently at white power festivals and other gatherings.

In part, Pieri is researching to what extent white power music is reflective of the movement and drives extremism.

“Reading the lyrics, it’s very disturbing, with a lot of hateful messaging that predominantly comes out as anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant,” he said. “The movement believes that Jewish people are controlling the levers of government and the media, and that they serve as cultural gatekeepers. It’s the typical anti-Semitic trope that has been around for a very long time.

“Allied to that is the idea that white supremacists believe the liberal order has failed western societies, and that liberals have ultimately failed white working-class people to create a system that favors non-whites,” he said.

Students, faculty collaborate as USF celebrates Research Week

USF students learned the value of research, collaboration and the role of research in society during USF Research Week, April 5-9, which featured a range of research-focused workshops as well as award ceremonies for undergraduate- and graduate-level research.

“The student researchers did a phenomenal job, both in their research methodology and in their presentations,” said Karen A. Holbrook, regional chancellor of the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus. “All you have to do is look at the abstracts for the research submitted to understand that this was very sophisticated research, and it was all important and very high-quality research.”

Several hundred students and faculty members participated in USF Research Week. Topics for the workshops ranged from how to publish research and turn research into a viable product or service, to how to identify markets right for your product or service, among others.

Highlighting the week were two award ceremonies recognizing undergraduate and graduate students and their faculty mentors. In many cases, the teams collaborated for months before students delivered their final research presentations. All of the workshops, presentations and award ceremonies were held virtually because of COVID-19.

Among the undergraduate winners was USF Sarasota-Manatee campus student Patrycja Brylska, who won in the business category for her research of service robots in hospitality.


Patrycja Brylska and Nicole Ritenour

“I was just speechless when I found out I had won,” said Brylska, a senior in the Muma College of Business’ School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “This has been an incredible experience, working with so many talented and amazing people. I learned so much about research, from beginning to end. It was amazing.”

Hospitality Professor Cihan Cobanoglu served as Brylska’s mentor. She also received assistance from Seden Dogan, an assistant professor of tourism at Ondokuz Mayis University in Samsun, Turkey, and a frequent collaborator with USF’s M3 Center for Research and Innovation.

For her project, Brylska surveyed 942 Americans about their attitudes toward service robots in hospitality. She found that while many supported the use of robots for simple tasks, like delivering towels and room service, they preferred human interaction to pay their bills and ask about room availability or restaurant options.

Brylska, who is set to graduate this summer, said she hopes to pursue an MBA and a doctoral degree in hospitality. Cobanoglu couldn’t have been prouder of her.

“It truly was a great experience working with Patty,” he said. “Students like Patty represent the future our industry, and it gives me great pleasure when undergraduate students are motivated to conduct research. It shows their potential for career opportunities, even in academia. I strongly believe that students such as Patty have a bright future ahead of them.” 

Nicole Ritenour, a senior psychology student at the Sarasota-Manatee campus, was likewise thrilled about Research Week.

Ritenour teamed up with Assistant Professor Jay Michaels and fellow students Nadine Elnagaar and Naomi Aguila to explore the motivations for attending religious services and the impact of religion on worshippers.  

“It’s was a very fulfilling experience collaborating with Dr. Michaels and the other students to put this project together and share it with people at the conference,” said Ritenour, who presented the team’s findings.

She added that the research experience is invaluable in helping students hone their public-speaking and critical-thinking skills and preparing students for graduate school and beyond.

Prior to the awards, the students used posters to walk participants through their projects. The presentations were judged by faculty experts, who bestowed “Best of” awards to the winners.

Here are the Undergraduate Research Conference winners:

Best of Arts & Humanities (tie) 
Shelby Wagers: Adventurous Women: From Moll Flanders to Ariana Grande
Faculty mentor: Jessica Cook (Department of English)

Maria Coto: LGBTQ+ Inclusion through Conscious Editing
Faculty mentor: Amanda Boczar (Department of English)

Best of Health Sciences 
Tomas Vivas, Carlyn Vogel & Lindsay Peterson: Prevalence of Limited Mental Health Licenses Among Assisted Living Communities in Rural and Urban Florida 
Faculty mentor: Hillary Rouse (School of Aging Studies)

Best of Natural Sciences 
Van Le: SIRT1 and mitochondrial homeostasis in heart failure 
Faculty mentor: Ji Li (College of Medicine Surgery)

Best of Social Sciences 
Caitlyn Coleman: Pandemics Past and Present: Social Impacts Connecting the Second Plague Pandemic to COVID-19
Faculty mentor: Andrea Vianello (Department of Anthropology)

Undergraduate Scholar Award
Victoria BurgThe USF Scholar Award recognizes a student’s commitment to their development as a researcher during their undergraduate tenure.

Here are the winners of the Graduate Student Research Symposium:

Arts and Humanities 
Kara Larson: Labor-Based Grading Contracts and Instructor Feedback
Major Professor: Lisa Meloncon (College of Arts and Sciences)

Brooks Olney: Deploying Neural Network IP in an Adversarial Environment
Major Professor: Robert Karam (College of Engineering)

Joshua Benjamin: Optimizing Pressure Retarded Osmosis Spacer Geometries: An Experimental and Numerical Study
Co-Major Professors: Mauricio Arias and Qiong Zhang (College of Engineering)

Health and Life Sciences
Salvatore Scaffidi: Identification of Novel Genes Contributing to Spatial Regulation of Surface Protein A in Staphylococcus Aureus
Major Professor: Wenqi Yu (College of Arts and Sciences)

Health and Life Sciences
Veronica Howell: Community Health Programming Gone Online: Participant Experiences Transitioning to a Virtual Service Model in the Wake of COVID-19
Major Professor: Dr. Jaime Corvin (College of Public Health)

Health and Life Sciences 
Katarina Bojkovic: Hyperoxia-induced Cardiac Pathophysiology in Type-1 Diabetic Mice Model
Major Professor: Siva Panguluri (Morsani College of Medicine) 

Physical Life Sciences and Mathematics
Leanne Stepchinski: Headwater Wetlands or Headwater Streams? Hydrologic Connectivity and Flow Generation from California Vernal Pool Wetlands to Downstream Waters
Major Professor: Mark Rains (College of Arts and Sciences) 
Program: Geosciences

Physical Life Sciences and Mathematics
Jessica Balerna: Characterizing Long-Term Hydrological Changes in Impaired Depressional Wetlands (Tampa Bay Region, FL)
Major Professor: David Lewis (College of Arts and Sciences) 

Social and Behavioral Sciences (Including Education) 
Sarah Bochat: The Effect of Sound Generator Treatment on Cortical Plasticity
Major Professor: David Eddins (College of Behavioral and Community Sciences)

Social and Behavioral Sciences (Including Education)
Adaline Buerck: Will Social Marketing Get the Lead (Pb) Out: Evaluation Findings from an Interdisciplinary Pb Mitigation Project in Madagascar
Co-Major Professors: James R. Mihelcic and Mahmooda Khaliq Pasha (College of Engineering)

People’s Choice Awards (selected by the audience)

Social and Behavioral Sciences (Including Education) 
Sabeehah Ravat: Muslims Under the Rainbow: Five Aspects of Reconciling Islamic Faith with Queer Identity
Major Professor: Michelle Hughes Miller (College of Arts and Sciences) 

Health and Life Sciences
Bina Desai: Impact of Fibroblast Mediated Stromal Protection on Evolution of Resistance to Targeted Therapies In ALK+ Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
Major Professor: Andriy Marusyk (College of Arts and Sciences) 

Rarosue Amaraibi: Assessment of Low-Cost Adsorbents for Siloxane Removal from Landfill Gas.
Co-Major Professors: John Kuhn and Babu Joseph (College of Engineering) 

Virtual Book Club an enduring hit with USF students, looks to continue in the fall

An online book club to support USF students at the onset of COVID-19 will continue well after students return to campus in the fall.

Virtual Book Club (VBC) was launched at the Sarasota-Manatee campus last spring as a fun and safe student-centric activity while most in-person classes and other campus activities were being cancelled or moved online to keep students safe.

But now, with USF’s three campuses planning a return to regular in-person activities this fall, backers of the once-a-week club say it’s become too popular with members in its virtual format to just let it end.

Instead, the club will maintain its virtual presence but with a few in-person activities, including occasional meet-and-greets with light snacks, added to the lineup.

scarleth andino

Scarleth Andino

“I find great joy knowing that a small idea like Virtual Book Club has significantly impacted USF students as it grows in popularity,” said biology major Scarleth Andino, who helped found the club. “I know it will remain a consistent place where students share their love for books and share their thoughts in a safe place while meeting other students. I look forward to joining as alumni in the upcoming semester and watching as it continues to adapt to new guidelines while maintaining its purpose of bringing students together.”

Driven by requests from students such as Andino, Virtual Book Club was launched in April 2020 by faculty and staff from USF Sarasota-Manatee campus Library Services & Information Commons and the Office of Student Engagement.

Since then, VBC has met weekly on most Mondays from 7 to 8 p.m. through Microsoft Teams. The meetings generally draw 15 to 20 students, with up to 40 participating each book cycle through asynchronous and synchronous means. More than 110 students participated during the club’s first year.

Students recommend and vote on titles, and meeting discussions typically range from how the stories resonate with members to whether they include similarities to actual persons and events. The group also engages in quick online polling to spur discussion. Outside of meetings, the students participate in asynchronous Teams chats, social media exchanges and a text-messaging group.

“It really is a great way for students to connect and interact with each other when so many other activities on and off campus were shut down because of COVID,” club advisor and campus Librarian Jessica Szempruch said.

The club offers a welcome environment as well as practical benefits, such as helping students hone their communication and critical-thinking skills.

Faculty and staff are welcome to join, although students comprise most of the attendees, other than Szempruch and co-advisor Katrina Hinds, coordinator of student organizations and leadership, and Library Specialist Evan Fruehauf, who helps organize and facilitate the VBC meetings.

So far, the group has breezed through seven publications, all of which have been provided to the students by the Office of Student Engagement. Among the most popular are fictional books in the suspense, thriller and fantasy genres as well as those featuring young protagonists, including “Stardust,” by Neil Gaiman; “The Queen’s Gambit,” by Walter Tevis; and “They Both Die at the End,” by Adam Silvera.

“VBC is a place where we want to hear what you think. There is no right or wrong interpretation,” Szempruch said. “There’s a genuine feeling of camaraderie here. I love it, and Kati and I really enjoy seeing how the students have bonded together. Seeing the success of this project in the past year has been a career highlight.”

The group includes a cross-section of students, including freshman, non-traditional and graduate students. Most are based at the Sarasota-Manatee campus, but some members attend classes in Tampa and St. Petersburg and joined VBC after hearing from friends or seeing a social media posting.

Graduate student Rachel Ames said she became involved because she’s an avid reader and enjoys meeting other students.

“It’s really allowed me to feel connected to other campus students,” said Ames, who is studying for her MBA. “I received my undergraduate degree at USF in Tampa and I only had one semester at USF Sarasota-Manatee before everything transitioned to online, so I didn’t really get to know anyone yet. VBC has allowed me to actually make friends virtually over the course of my degree when I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.”

To learn more about the Virtual Book Club, contact Jessica Szempruch at or Kati Hinds at

USF Sarasota-Manatee campus to sponsor workshop at virtual CareerSource Suncoast State of Talent conference

The USF Sarasota-Manatee campus will present a workshop on Critical and Creative Design Thinking as one of the sponsors of the fifth annual CareerSource Suncoast State of Talent Conference on May 12. The virtual conference will host community business experts sharing inspiring content, big ideas and innovative strategies focused on the future of workforce and talent development.  


Helene Robinson and Greg Smogard

Greg Smogard, assistant vice president of innovation and business development, and Helene Robinson, an instructor in the College of Education and director of the Incredi-Bull Critical Thinking certificate program (IBCT) at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, will discuss the impact of critical and creative-design thinking in business. 

Now in its fifth year, the IBCT program is a highly successful, interdisciplinary initiative focused on enhancing problem-solving skills to drive creativity and innovation.  

The program offers IBCT courses to students and businesses and nonprofit organizations to develop critical-thinking skills.

The State of Talent Conference is offered at no cost thanks to the generous support from speakers and sponsors. Register at the Career Suncoast webpage and learn more about the diverse lineup of industry experts.

USF students, Sarasota Chamber partner for ‘Shadow Day’

USF students from the Sarasota-Manatee campus recently partnered with the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce to help them better understand their career options after graduation.

The students – Amanda Baxter, Michelle Kalstrup, Kathy Duong, Emily Valdes, Hanna Hinkle Wizeman and Sean Schrader – met virtually with local executives on April 2 as part of a program launched three years ago called “Shadow Days.”

The students spent two hours with the executives to learn what their jobs involve and how their careers progressed.


Jay Riley

“By meeting one-on-one, these students learned from executives what they actually do on a daily basis, which can help them figure out their own career paths,” said Jay Riley, director of business outreach and engagement at the campus. “They also learned about careers in our area, so they don’t have to leave after graduation, and the executives are able to see that we’re producing great talent right here at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus.”

Riley worked with Shauna Donahue, the chamber’s CareerEdge program director, to schedule the Shadow Day event, which was held online because of COVID-19. The students and executives met virtually one-on-one then gathered in a video-conferencing call in the late morning to discuss their experiences.

“I really enjoyed it and I thought it was a great opportunity to meet someone working in the field that I want to enter,” marketing student Amanda Baxter said. “I learned a lot and I gained another marketing connection, so it was a great experience.”

Baxter shadowed Monica Yadav, public affairs director at Doctors Hospital in Sarasota.

Other students met with Brian Thoennissen, a USF alum and brand manager at Tervis Tumbler; Rob Lewis, government relations director at Sarasota County government; and Autumn Roppolo, victims advocate coordinator at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

Kalstrup, an interdisciplinary social sciences major, said her meeting with Roppolo helped confirm her career goal to assist crime victims, possibly at the sheriff’s office.

“It was an awesome experience,” Kalstrup said. “She told me basically everything that they do and how they work as a team and her responsibilities. I learned a lot. Hopefully, I’ll be able to volunteer there before I graduate. I’m really grateful for this experience.”

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