Institute for Astronomy building
Institute for Astronomy

Graduate students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Institute for Astronomy (IfA) are raking in recognition for their excellence in research and teaching. Five IfA students earned a wide range of awards in June 2021, many including scholarships and fellowships.

Erica Bufanda
Erica Bufanda

Fourth-year IfA student Erica Bufanda is one of eight recipients of a Soroptimist Founder Region Fellowship, designed to economically empower women in the final stages of earning their PhDs. Additionally, Bufanda’s efforts as an undergraduate astronomy lab instructor earned her the UH Mānoa Graduate Student Organization Hannah Liebreich Merit-Based Award for Teaching. She also received the George and Mona Elmore ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) Award for her thesis work on analyzing the physical properties of comets from the Oort Cloud, a spherical cloud made up of icy objects in the outskirts of the solar system, far beyond Neptune and Pluto.

A panel of scientists also awarded Bufanda a $1,000 prize and the honorary title of 2021 ARCS Scholar of the Year, for submitting the best short video describing her research. This honor reiterates the recognition of Bufanda’s acclaimed science communication skills, for which she received a 2019 Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)—The National Diversity in STEM Conference Presentation Award. Bufanda has been selected to present at the 2021 SACNAS conference, which will be held digitally in October.

Travis Berger, Ryan Dungee, Suchitra Narayanan
From left: Travis Berger, Ryan Dungee, Suchitra Narayanan

Fifth-year IfA graduate student Ryan Dungee works on improving image quality from telescopes using adaptive optics and benchmarking models for determining a star’s age. Dungee received the Columbia Communications ARCS Award for his efforts.

Travis Berger, who is completing his dissertation at IfA, received the Student Excellence in Research Award from the UH Mānoa Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. Berger combines space-based observations with data obtained using Maunakea telescopes to study how the demographics of exoplanets depend on the properties of their host stars, which informs theories of planet formation. He previously received a Future Investigator in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) grant in 2019 and an ARCS Scholar award in 2020.

Nicholas Saunders
Nicholas Saunders

Nicholas Saunders just completed his second year at IfA, and received an award through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), for his work on discovering exoplanets around red giant branch stars using NASA’s TESS space telescope. He works with advisors Professor Dan Huber and IfA alumnus Sam Grunblatt. The NSF GRFP recognizes and supports outstanding STEM graduate students, with a fellowship that includes three years of financial support with an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution. IfA grad student Jason Hinkle received an Honorable Mention for his GRFP proposal.

First-year IfA student Suchitra Narayanan is one of 50 graduate students selected to participate in the ComSciCon Flagship Workshop. ComSciCon is a series of workshops focused on science communication, organized by graduate students, for graduate students where participants network with and learn from experts from all science fields. Narayanan will also present at the 2021 SACNAS conference this October, and received a conference and registration scholarship.

This effort is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Enhancing Student Success (PDF) and Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.