UNF student awarded prestigious fellowship for revolutionary research idea

Raul Chavarria, local Robert E. Lee High graduate, receives 3 years of graduate education support

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Raul Chavarria is excited to begin his dream of becoming a scientist.

The 24-year-old’s future was practically sealed when he was awarded a prestigious national fellowship that will pay for three years of graduate school.

“It’s a very, very difficult award to win,” explained Frank Smith, Chavarria’s science professor.

Smith has been working with Chavarria and other students, and he will continue to work with Chavarria on his master’s degree.

Smith explained that most students decide to pursue their master’s degree at one of the Ivy League schools like Harvard or Yale once securing this fellowship.

Chavarria has decided to continue his studies where he recently graduated with his bachelor’s degree -- the University of North Florida.

“There’s thousands of students that are applying for this award,” Smith said proudly. “I was so excited that [Chavarria] did because I knew that he deserved it for sure.”

But Chavarria’s journey to success wasn’t so certain after a run-in with the law. Chavarria was then just 19 years old, a new graduate of Robert E. Lee High School, when he found himself at a crossroad.

He was arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana charge.

According to the police report, the Jacksonville officer says he pulled Chavarria over and found marijuana in his backpack.

The report states Chavarria told the officer “...he made a stupid mistake and wanted to turn his life around.”

Chavarria said the arresting officer suggested he join the military to help put him on the right path, but Chavarria wanted to be an environmental scientist.

“I still love nature even though I was arrested,” Chavarria said matter-of-factly. “I kept on having a curious mindset and I think that’s what kept me going.”

Helping him move past his mistake, Chavarria also credited nature walks that friends invited him to join.

But he said no one deserves more credit than his mother.

“Good decision and not good decision,” Lilly Moreno said as she recalls the conversation she had with her son after his arrest. “You have to take the better way. But that’s it. Just one time we [talked] about this. I trust him.”

The mother and son immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua when Chavarria was 8 years old. He said growing up, many in his culture didn’t understand his aspirations.

“They kind of see it as maybe as a waste of time or you’re going to be putting all this effort, all this money to end up not getting a job once you graduate,” Chavarria explained of the mindset he’s come up against. “It makes it really hard for a lot of people who are curious and want to get involved in science and solving these mysteries of the universe, to get started in that career path because they’re getting a lot of pushback from the same people who looked just like them.”

That’s why Chavarria feels he has a dual purpose. When he begins working on his master’s degree in the fall, Chavarria said he wants to start a branch of SACNA: the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans.

He said he wants to create an atmosphere where other students feel comfortable expanding their curiosity about science and nature.

Chavarria will continue his studies on an animal that’s too small to see.

Tardigrades are microscopic animals known as water bears, and are no bigger than half the size of a grain of sand. They eat green algae, lay eggs and are on what Chavarria based his undergraduate research and fellowship application.

Chavarria and his professor will continue to research a pathway found in all animals, including tardigrades, that play many important roles during development.

Their work with the simple, microscopic animals could help explain how humans evolved.

Chavarria’s ultimate goal in the world of science is to continue feeding his fascination with nature.

“I hope to continue to get a sense of wonder every time I make a discovery,” he said.

Chavarria said if other people want to use his work for applications that might help humanity along the way -- that would be great, too.

About the Author:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.