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The Graduate School has named fourth-year Ph.D. student David Aponte-Díaz as the 2023 recipient of the Boka W. Hadzija Award for Distinguished University Service, one of the Chancellor’s Awards at UNC-Chapel Hill. The award recognizes a graduate or professional student with outstanding character, scholarship, leadership, and service to the University.

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Aponte-Díaz is a graduate student in the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, with a focus on virology.

As a prospective graduate student, Carolina’s reputation and strength in virology research appealed to Aponte-Díaz.

“It became clear to me that this was going to be a good place based on previous virology research,” he said. Early on, Ashalla Freeman, the director of diversity affairs for the Biological & Biomedical Research Program (BBSP), connected with Aponte-Díaz.

“That was a green flag for me in choosing the program in that they care about diversity and inclusion in their graduate student community while ensuring their success in graduate school,” he said.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Aponte-Díaz attended Penn State University before working for several years as a research technologist. At one point, graduate school seemed out of reach.

“As an undergrad, I didn’t exactly have role models who guided me to get to the point of going into a Ph.D. program,” he said. “However, because the encouragement and opportunities extended by my mentors, Craig Cameron and Jamie Arnold, while working as a research technologist enabled me to get into this program, I knew it was important to have community-building experiences encouraging colleagues to reach their potential.”

He has spent his time at Carolina mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, especially serving students from underrepresented backgrounds.

“I wanted to pay it forward by helping others around me and growing together,” he said. “A diverse group of researchers leads to the most creative ideas and the most impactful science.”

David assumed leadership roles in committees for the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development program UNC-Chapel Hill. Through these efforts, he led discussion panels and attended conferences as worked as a recruiter at STEM-related conferences for underrepresented students.

He also serves as an admissions diversity advocate. Notably, along with fellow 2021 Boka W. Hadzija Award winner Juanita Limas, Aponte-Díaz spearheaded a mentoring-focused program for first-year graduate students who faced challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Its success led to development of a program budget of $3,000 for programming activities and a $1,000 stipend for student leaders. The programs now pair students with mentors and organizes workshops and activities to build community among graduate mentor-mentees.

During his time at UNC-Chapel Hill, Aponte-Díaz has also served on his department’s education and training committee to improve graduate student life in the context of their program. He also serves as the school of medicine graduate student representative for the diversity, equity, and inclusion council.

“Hopefully, I can motivate others to do this kind of work so everyone can uplift each other. That’s how I see it.”

One student per year receives the award; it is named after the late Boka W. Hadzija at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy and was established in 2000.

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