2023 LASER Training Cohort

In August of 2023, the Graduate School welcomed the start of another cohort of Leaders Advancing Socially Engaged Research (LASER). This program is aimed at Notre Dame doctoral students in their third or fourth years of study, and is intended to complement students’ individual research pursuits in their various fields. This year’s cohort consists of nine students completing individual LASER projects who represent the diverse academic programs at the University. 

The cohort kicked off the year by celebrating the previous cohort's successes at the LASER Symposium. LASER is led by John Lubker, the Graduate School’s associate dean for academic affairs. LASER meetings, which take place every three weeks on campus, will feature topics such as self-awareness, values clarification, crucial conversations, social responsibility, and values in research as well as bringing in guest speakers from the community.

Below, the 2023-2024 LASER participants describe their projects in their own words (entries may be edited for brevity and clarity): 

Angie Abarca Perez—Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences

Angie Abarca Perez, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences

My project focuses on giving back to my ND community through a multi-phased project centered around mentoring and fostering a sense of belonging. The first step is the creation of mentoring resources for graduate students in my research group. The goal is to equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to become effective mentors for undergraduate students. It will address the unique needs of both the research process and the long-term aspirations of undergraduate students. By the end of the semester, both mentors and mentees should achieve their respective goals. Furthermore, it will help graduate students develop essential skills for their academic and professional growth. The second phase is to create a student group of Latinas in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM). This group will provide a platform for exchanging experiences, skills, and expectations, particularly with first-year graduate Latina students. Within this group, we will organize various events that focus on personal and professional development, tailored to the unique challenges and opportunities faced by Latinas at ND. However, the primary emphasis will be facilitating the sharing of knowledge and experience to undergraduate Latinas in our home countries and serving as mentors for them. Through these two phases, my project seeks to foster a supportive community that thrives on mentorship and empowerment, ensuring that individuals at different stages of their academic and professional journeys have the tools and guidance they need to succeed.

Daniel Bannoura—Theology

Daniel Bannoura, Theology

I'm working on developing an ultimate frisbee coaching program in the Gaza Strip, Palestine. The program includes running training for coaches and initiating practices in various athletic clubs and schools in the Gaza Strip.

David Carlson—History

David Carlson, History

David is working with his adviser Patrick Griffin to launch the "Global America Initiative'' at Notre Dame, which will draw scholars from Notre Dame and partner with both domestic and international institutions of higher education to explore questions of American self-understanding and the role of the United States in the world. Through conferences and research, scholars will engage in interdisciplinary dialogue about concepts like American identity, political economy, and governance. David is also working on organizing a series of workshops on artificial intelligence and education. With a particular emphasis on how artificial intelligence impacts pedagogy in the humanities—though all disciplines are encouraged to participate—David hopes to draw together educators and students to consider best practices for education of skills like writing in light of artificial intelligence's impact on the world today and in the near future.

William Castillo—Biochemistry

William Castillo, Biochemistry

My proposed social engagement and leadership project involves leading and serving as a co-mentor for students in the newly established University of Notre Dame post-baccalaureate research education program (ND-PREP). The ND-PREP initiative is a comprehensive one-year training program established to equip post-baccalaureate candidates from diverse backgrounds who lack sufficient research experience with the requisite skills and hands-on research experience required to be competitive for admission into and success in a Ph.D. program. Additionally, in conjunction with ND-PREP fellows, I will help lead a community lead abatement project in collaboration with the ND Lead Innovation Team (ND-LIT). Environmental lead is a significant problem in the South Bend and Michiana area, predominantly impacting members of the underrepresented and economically disadvantaged communities. Through my involvement in this project, I will have the opportunity to interact with a variety of stakeholders, including community organizers, neighborhood association members, other volunteers, professionals in local government, environmental risk assessors, researchers, and government officials who are affiliated with the Indiana Collaboration for Lead Action and Prevention (ICLAP). Specifically, my role will involve assisting ND-PREP fellows in tasks such as assembling lead screening kits, supporting local professionals conducting in-home lead assessments, and measuring lead levels in water and soil samples. Overall, this will allow me to not only mentor post-baccalaureate students with backgrounds similar to mine, but also contribute to a community-based initiative aimed at mitigating lead contamination in the water supply of underrepresented and economically disadvantaged communities.

Jacob Diehl—Biochemistry

Jacob Diehl, Biochemistry

The discipline of science is typically characterized by the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation, experimentation, and the testing of theories against the evidence obtained. However, this definition fails to emphasize the aspects of the discipline of science that makes it successful in our modern world—collaboration and dispersal of knowledge. With these ideas in mind, the social engagement/leadership project I hope to carry out as part of the LASER program is to help organize the 17th Midwest Conference on Protein Folding Assembly and Molecular Motions (Midwest Folding). My adviser, Patricia Clark, has been the primary organizer of this meeting for many years. The conference itself will take place in late April/early May 2024 and will feature talks and posters presented by trainees studying protein folding, aggregation, binding, and dynamics. Additionally, the conference typically holds two plenary sessions featuring talks from two principal investigators. The primary motivation behind this conference is twofold. The conference aims to gather protein scientists from the Midwest to exchange their research, as well as provide graduate students and postdocs the opportunity to present their research results to the protein folding community.

Bryce Dye—Chemistry

Bryce Dye, Chemistry

Often, students come to graduate school with an amalgam of essential items, either purchased new or handed down prior to moving, but what about the students who move from another country? The amount of supplies they can bring is limited by the size of their carry-on luggage, forcing them to purchase many basic, yet crucial, materials when they arrive. The cost can add up quickly. My LASER project is to organize a Graduate School stockroom for international and underrepresented students to provide often-overlooked household goods in an effort to alleviate added financial stress and assist in their success during their time at Notre Dame.

Courtney Flatt—Biochemistry

Courtney Flatt, Biochemistry

I participated in the Strategic Management Initiative (SMI) program at Notre Dame in summer 2023, which is a workshop series developed in collaboration between the Harper Cancer Research Institute and the Mendoza College of Business. The SMI program introduces Harper graduate students to fundamental management and business concepts, such as conflict management, budgeting, and negotiation, and provides an opportunity to share our research and practice publicly presenting. I believe it has great potential to benefit all graduate students, regardless of career path, to develop these professional skills and better promote ourselves and our research. Thus, my goal for my LASER project is to expand on the existing SMI programming to offer training in these areas with a particular emphasis on effective scientific communication, and to strengthen the connection between graduate student researchers and the stakeholders of our research through engagement with our community. As academic researchers, our training and presentations are often focused on the highly technical aspects of our research, so this program will provide graduate students the opportunity to develop other needed aspects for effective management and communication in any scientific career. We can then apply these skills in presenting our research in public presentations, with the goal of engaging with the South Bend community impacted by and interested in our research.

Wesley Hedden—Peace Studies and Sociology

Wesley Hedden, Peace Studies and Sociology

I have two projects that I'm working on for LASER. The first relates to my research on social justice and peace activism within the field of engineering. By mapping out these reform movements and networks, I hope to support greater connectivity and interdisciplinary collaborations between engineers and peacebuilders. My second project is focused on Notre Dame's campus. In my role as chair of Graduate Student Government's Quality of Life committee, I am working to assess the needs of parenting graduate students, create opportunities for solidarity-building, and advocate for increased institutional support of these members of the Notre Dame community.

Fatemeh Jafarabadi—Bioengineering

Fatemeh Jafarabadi, Bioengineering

I will use my LASER experience to further develop and enhance my skills and leadership abilities, focusing on advocating for and strengthening the presence of women in STEM fields. My involvement with the Graduate Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE) has given me valuable experiences. During my first year, I served as the professional development chair and successfully organized various impactful activities, including workshops, seminars, and networking events. I intend to build upon this foundation in my upcoming role as the society's vice president for this academic year. My plans include expanding our outreach to attract a diverse community of women in STEM within and beyond the University of Notre Dame, fostering connections between our members and other SWE chapters through Women in Engineering conferences, nurturing a culture of inclusivity and collaboration within the organization, and offering ample support for members to assume leadership roles in the future. These initiatives are designed to empower our members, broaden their networks, and create an inclusive environment where women in STEM can thrive.

Hoon Lee—Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

Hoon Lee, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

In the 2023-2024 academic year, I will be a Graduate Resilience Alliance at ND (GRAND) mentor, supporting the first-year graduate students. As a small group leader, I will guide the new students in navigating ND resources and foster ties within the ND community. Interactive small group sessions will spark discussions, mutual aid, and connections. This will also help nurture my leadership approach and establish campus affiliations. Additionally, I will integrate my current role as a volunteer officer of Notre Dame Staff of International Descent (NDSID) into the LASER program throughout the 2023–2024 academic year. In NDSID, I will organize events to promote cultural, social, and community engagement, bridging the gap between students and staff.

Antônio Lemos—Theology

Antônio Lemos, Theology

I am passionate about building community and creating networking opportunities between Ph.D. students and junior and senior scholars, especially in my field of moral theology. For this reason, I am organizing a weekly writing group, a monthly social hour, and a reception at the annual meeting of the Society for Christian Ethics. The writing group will provide PhD students with a supportive space to work on their dissertations and receive feedback from their peers. The social hour will give Ph.D. students and faculty at Notre Dame a chance to interact informally and get to know each other better. Finally, the reception at the annual meeting will be a great opportunity for Ph.D. students to network with junior and senior scholars in their field. I believe that these initiatives will make a significant impact on the moral theology community. By providing Ph.D. students with support, feedback, and opportunities to connect with scholars, I hope to help them succeed in their academic careers and become the next generation of leaders in moral theology.

Sherryen Mutoka—Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences

Sherryen Mutoka, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences

One of Notre Dame’s core values is “a commitment to educating and enriching the whole person.” My LASER projects look to improve the experience of international graduate students at Notre Dame and assist in forming a community here at Notre Dame. As an African graduate student, I struggled in my early years to form a community and have a meaningful life outside of academics. This has inspired me to improve the graduate student experience for the current and incoming international graduate students by creating different opportunities to get together and interact with other students from various backgrounds. The project’s aim will be to foster community, encourage dialogue, and establish connections among the students. The proposed projects include continuing as the president of the existing Book Club at Notre Dame. Through the choice of books and discussions, I hope to bring together students and create a sense of community. I am also looking to collaborate with McDonald Center for Student Well-Being (McWell), Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS), Graduate Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE), and many others to spread the news about available resources at Notre Dame and how graduate students can access them. I would also like to collaborate with the Sustainability Committee of the Graduate Student Government to organize a garden visit and a farmer’s market. This will introduce the current community garden to the students, while also allowing current graduate students with plots in the garden to show their produce and open discussions about the various plants from various cultures that are grown in the community gardens. The result is a graduate student who feels a part of the community, knows where to go to look for resources they require, and is thriving in all aspects of life, not just in academics.

Emmanuel Ojeifo—Theology

Emmanuel Ojeifo, Theology

My proposed LASER project is a mini-conference and a peace prayer gathering on campus to mark the International Day of Human Fraternity. My project will bring together faculty and students—of faith and no faith—to share knowledge, insight, and experience on how the world’s religions can better promote justice, peace, fraternity, inclusion, and social friendship on campus and in the local community. The inspiration behind my project is the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together which was co-signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar at Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019.

Tracey Porter—Biological Sciences

Tracey Porter, Biological Sciences

For my LASER project, I am interested in understanding and increasing minority representation in higher education. In particular, increasing the number of ethnic minorities that are from the Midwest to attend the University of Notre Dame. To do this, I first want to survey the greater South Bend community to understand why so few minority students from the area attend the University of Notre Dame. After the completion and review of the assessment, I will create a proposal for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions that could be implemented into an initiative/program. This initiative is to fill in the gaps and meet the needs of South Bend residents of color to attend the University of Notre Dame. The initiative could include financial assistance, peer mentoring from high school to college, and increase awareness of resources and communities of color on campus.

Balark Tiwari—Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

Balark Tiwari, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

The project focuses on understanding the impact of robots in digital metal forming and machine learning tools (e.g., Microsoft Copilot) on jobs and everyday life. The plan is to engage with the Notre Dame community and the South Bend manufacturing sector to gather their opinions on automation taking over traditional metal forming roles. We aim to merge academic insights with local experiences to explore how the benefits of machine learning in the digital metal forming field can align with societal and ethical goals. The goal is to gather and critically examine a wide range of views and experiences through interviews, group discussions, and workshops, understanding how robotic manufacturing could shape the future of work and our approach to it.

Julie Wilson—English

Julie Wilson, English

For my LASER project, I want to take active steps towards securing a more certain future for the Notre Dame Community Garden. Many Notre Dame students, faculty, and staff currently utilize the garden space as a means for achieving food security, growing organic produce, and connecting with other gardeners and their families. However, as of now, there is no single entity at Notre Dame that is directly responsible for supervising and funding the garden. There are several organizations and offices at Notre Dame that are happy to help support the garden, but none of them can supply the long-term financial and administrative support that the garden needs. I want to lead initiatives that will encourage all involved parties in the garden to address these uncertainties, to craft a long-term and holistic vision for the garden, and to take steps towards achieving that vision. By doing so, I hope to see a more stable and secure future for the garden.