Graduate Student Council announces 2024 Anchor Award winners

The Vanderbilt Graduate Student Council has announced the winners of the 2024 Graduate Leadership Anchor Awards, honoring the hard work and leadership of Vanderbilt graduate students schoolwide. This year’s awards recognize outstanding service, mentorship, departmental leadership, research and best overall.

Service Award

Mariana Jimenez

Mariana Jimenez, Neuroscience

During her time as a doctoral student, Mariana Jimenez has provided leadership and service for the Vanderbilt Brain Institute, the Neuroscience Student Organization and the Neuroscience Graduate Program. She has been the president, Social Committee co-chair, and chair of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Event Planning Subcommittee with the NSO. Through her creative event programming with this organization, Jimenez increased EDI initiatives with her colleagues and new students. Her work on campus has extended to supporting creativity and research opportunities for high schoolers through programs such as the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity, designed to help underserved high school students in Nashville. Beyond her work in her field, Jimenez has also been a valued member and leader in the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, the Latin American and Caribbean Student Association, and the Vanderbilt International Researchers Alliance. “Mariana has been a paragon of service,” one nominator writes.

Mentorship Award

Simon J. Ward

Simon J. Ward, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Simon Ward’s commitment to his research through the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has helped form his legacy of leadership and mentorship to junior doctoral, undergraduate, and senior graduate students. One nominator highlights Ward’s passion for helping others by noting that, “Simon is extremely generous with his time and resources.” Ward has been a mentor to prospective Ph.D. students, serving them through multiple stages of preparing for their Ph.D. Ward’s dedication to his field and the vitality of colleagues is evident through his attention to detail and planning.

Department Leadership Award

Samantha H. Schaffner

Samantha H. Schaffner, Biological Sciences

Sam Schaffner was the Service chair for the Biological Sciences Graduate Student Association. In this role, she helped lead her department on multiple service outings, uniting her colleagues and inspiring care for the local community. Currently, Schaffner is the GSA co-chair of professional development and facilitates “Tangents and Trajectories,” a conversation that gives graduate students the opportunity to connect with senior scientists. She also serves as president of the Inclusivity in Biosciences Association, where she works with her department to improve equity in their research fields. “Through her extensive service, leadership and mentoring, Sam has heavily contributed to the welcoming environment of the Biological Sciences department and is an excellent role model for younger students,” one nominator writes.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award

Andrew R. Kittleson

Andrew R. Kittleson, Neuroscience

Drew Kittleson is president of Pride in Medicine, the Vanderbilt School of Medicine’s LGBTQ+ medical student organization. Through his time in this position, he has worked with community and Vanderbilt partners to host events and has helped create department-wide curriculum improvements surrounding LGBTQ+ health. Since the 2022–23 academic year, he has given talks that are embedded in the School of Medicine’s curriculum, including “The History, Evolution, and Medicalization of Gender Variance in America” for colleagues in the Medical Scientist Training Program and “Putting LGBTQ+ Health in Context: Talking to Queer and Trans Folks About Their Health” for first-year medical students. One nominator writes, “Drew is an outstanding leader and displays his dedication to advancing health equity for the LGBTQ+ community in many ways.”

Research Excellence Award

Sajal Islam

Sajal Islam, Interdisciplinary Materials Science

As a student in Interdisciplinary Materials Science, Sajal Islam has focused his research on the reliability of high-voltage devices made from wideband semiconductors. He has won many awards for this work. In 2023 he won an AI-generated image contest at CS MANTECH, was a co-winner of the IMS Sales Pitch, and received the Fan Favorite Poster Award at VINSE NanoDay. He has authored or co-authored five publications and has presented his work at Vanderbilt and beyond. When considering his role as a researcher, one nominator writes, “Sajal is one of the most productive graduate students with whom I have worked in nearly 40 years as a professor.”

Best Overall

Jiaxin Jessie Wang

Jiaxin Jessie Wang, Special Education

Jiaxin Jessie Wang has been described by one of her nominators as “… one of our extraordinary students whose vision for success is set to wide view, encompassing not only her own academic and professional development but also that of her fellow students.” Wang is the founder of the Special Education Graduate Students Association and has used this platform to create a professional development series and resource network for students. She has served as a Race and Disability Equity Fellow for The Education Trust and president of the Peabody Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Student Association. Through APIDA, Wang helped organize their first Diwali program that served more than 100 students. During her tenure as president in this organization, she helped double their overall budget and increase membership by 500 percent. She has served as a mentor to many students in her program, going so far as to create an open-source guide for incoming students to her program, Vanderbilt and Nashville as a whole. She received the Lacy-Fischer Interdisciplinary Research Grant and has many articles currently under review for publication.