UNLV winter graduates showcase talent, drive in Southern Nevada


Christopher DeVargas

UNLV celebrates the class of 2019 during the winter Commencement Ceremony at the Thomas & Mack Center, Tues. Dec. 17, 2019.

Editor’s note: In what has become a regular feature on the Sun’s editorial page, today we spotlight several outstanding recent college graduates from Southern Nevada.

The achievements and character of the following winter 2021 graduates reflect the extraordinary work that goes on day in and day out in Southern Nevada’s institutions of higher learning. Please note that UNLV is the only local university that holds a winter graduation ceremony, which was held Tuesday; we’ll be back in the spring to commend graduates from the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College and more from UNLV. With that, here are UNLV’s standout winter grads.

• Aaron Cheng earned bachelor’s degrees in cell/molecular biology and psychology while caring for an ailing parent and serving as a volunteer mentor for aspiring high school and undergraduate researchers. The first-generation college student was simply a dynamo: He also earned a minor in neuroscience and graduated as an Honors College student; volunteered with University Medical Center and the Medical Reserve Corps to support COVID-19 testing registration and distribution for elderly and homeless residents; and founded the Neuroscience Undergraduate Research Organization to encourage study of neuroscience, neurobiology and neurogenetics.

• Katie Derr, who earned a bachelor’s in hospitality and minored in anthropology, stood out for her support of environmental sustainability. Among her efforts, she participated on UNLV’s award-winning 2017 Solar Decathlon team for green construction; worked with local resorts on donation programs that diverted more than 200,000 pounds of discarded items from local landfills; and helped establish an eco-friendly nonprofit coffee shop on campus. She’s now off to Harvard, where she plans to pursue a master’s in sustainability with an eye toward returning to Las Vegas to promote environmentally friendly practices.

• Natalie Gutierrez turned an internship opportunity in UNLV’s multicultural resource center into leadership roles in peer mentoring with the center, where her contributions included creating educational materials, enhancing the marketing strategy and developing orientation presentations. She graduated with a bachelor’s in history with a 3.6 grade-point average.

• Kristina Mihajloviski, who earned a master’s in public health, stepped up for Las Vegas during the pandemic in several ways, including: helping train and manage more than 250 School of Public Health student contact tracers who tracked more than 43,000 cases of COVID-19; conducting what was believe to be the first study of coronavirus surface contamination in public areas in Las Vegas; and helping develop a COVID-19 testing kit prep and immunization project for several thousand local schoolchildren.

• Faraz Mostafaeipour, who earned a bachelor’s in physics, focused his research and honor’s thesis on efforts by UNLV’s Nevada Extreme Conditions Lab to build on its groundbreaking discovery last year of a room-temperature superconductor. Mostafaeipour’s work centers on the behavior of materials under high pressure — a critical part of the lab’s studies. UNLV assistant professor Ashkan Salamat, working with a team of researchers, helped prove in October 2020 that superconductivity of electricity could be reached at room temperature. The finding has enormous implications for energy efficiency, as superconductivity causes electrical resistance to vanish and for energy to flow freely without being lost as heat. Until the finding, superconductivity had been reached only in extremely cold temperatures. Mostafaeipour also served as a senator for student government, where he helped bring about an annual $5,000 scholarship fund for STEM students and remove limitations on DACA students’ participation in student government.