Graduate Student Honored with Latino Excellence Award

Butkovich will be recognized for her accomplishments during this year’s virtual Latino Excellence and Achievement Dinner on April 1.

March 17, 2021 - UC Irvine’s Samueli School selected Nina Butkovich, a chemical and biomolecular engineering doctoral student, as its winner of this  year’s Latino Excellence and Achievement Award. The award, co-sponsored by UCI’s Latinx Resource Center and Office of Inclusive Excellence, honors one graduate student for research excellence and academic achievement from each of the university’s schools.

Butkovich, who was nominated for the award by her department, is working to formulate an optimized cancer vaccine by researching nanoparticle design parameters that can elicit anti-cancer immune responses. She has been testing her formulations in mouse cell lines, and also is working with immunology collaborators who are testing the vaccine in human cell lines. 

The co-first author of one published paper and co-author of another, she is a student leader who has served as the department’s student representative for DECADE (Diverse Educational Community and Doctoral Experience), which supports and encourages higher education for women and underrepresented minorities. She also has been a teaching assistant, and pre-pandemic, served on a team that created and ran demonstrations for the materials science module of the Samueli School’s FABcamp program. She is the recipient of a GAANN (Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need) Fellowship award and an “outstanding role model and excellent research mentor,” according to her adviser, Szu-Wen Wang, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

"I'm excited to hear that Nina has won this award,” said Wang.  “Her academic strength combined with her positive attitude, respectfulness toward others and leadership in educational commitments will ensure that she will continue to be an outstanding researcher and excellent role model as she progresses in her career."

Of all her achievements though, there is one that stands out for Butkovich. “I'm probably most proud of beating thyroid cancer,” she said. “That history helped inspire me to conduct anti-cancer research in the first place.”

She’s also proud of her latest honor. “When I learned that I won this award, I was extremely excited,” she said. “Especially during the pandemic, people can be very stressed out about health, finances and other issues. But it means a lot to be recognized for your achievements, in spite of all of these roadblocks. I would very much like to thank my family, friends and co-workers who have always encouraged me.”

Butkovich will be honored for her achievements during the Latino Excellence and Achievement Dinner, scheduled to be held virtually on April 1. The ceremony, which aims to raise awareness of challenges in the graduate community, increase visibility of success and inspire the Latinx community to advance in graduate and postdoctoral programs, will feature speeches by UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman and UCI Foundation Board of Trustees member Gaddi Vasquez.

– Anna Lynn Spitzer