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Congrats to our Big Cat Heroes!

Heroism comes in many forms and is especially needed in uncertain and challenging times like these. The contributions of these individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic have made a positive impact on others – an outcome that is heroic by many measures. We are proud to name them Big Cat Heroes.


Round 7 Big Cat Heroes

Ehsan Choudhry, Faculty Liaison, Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost

Nomination Statement: In mid-March, Ehsan was commissioned full time from the EVC/Provost’s team to develop and implement the current daily health check application. This was not an easy task as it involved not only technical capability but developing the internal workflow (what happens when someone checks “yes” to symptoms, etc.). Related, Ehsan was instrumental in standing up the COVID Response Center (CRC) including developing the position descriptions and roles for staffing the CRC (e.g. public health nurse, case managers, case investigators).  Ehsan stepped up early in the COVID crisis to establish our campus’s contact tracing effort.  Ehsan worked tirelessly to set up our campus for success with limited time and resources, all while maintaining the kind and strategic approach that distinguishes his work.  His hard work and many stressful workdays, evenings, and weekends have set our campus up for success as we navigate a challenging path forward.


Alex Hernandez, Service Desk Manager, Office of Information Technology

Nomination Statement: When shelter-in-place in response to COVID-19 began the week of 9 March 2020, Alex rallied his team to deliver services remotely as part of an urgent response effort. As it became clear that this mode of support would need to be sustained, Alex maintained a critical level of service excellence and shifted the teams operational model to meet significant new needs. This included adopting a chat tool for use by the service desk, developing a curbside drop-off and pick-up equipment service, and ensuing that his small team provided an on campus presence in addition to remote service. In the midst of COVID-19, he continued to support business as usual including expanded VIP support, the physical relocation of the service desk due to planned construction, and close coordination with the Academic and Emerging Technology team tasked with direct support to faculty remote teaching. For example, it was critical that the Service Desk not only meet the demands of remote staff, but the addition of faculty support needs greatly expanded the population who needed mission critical remote support —and the kind of support needed— for not only productivity needs, but teaching and research. Alex does two things that I consider essential for excellence: he thinks ahead and reflects on past efforts to identify continuous improvement opportunities. Thus, he identified the need to accelerate OIT’s planned roll out of Microsoft Teams by asking his team to become familiar with the tool’s feature set. When, two months later, academic leadership identified MS Teams as the tool to support the Student Dens program, his team was ready. 


Alejandro Guerrero, Undergraduate Student

Nomination Statement: Alejandro is a senior at UC Merced, majoring in Mechanical Engineering. He is a UC Merced Police CFO. Chief Her lent a hand to Facilities Management in supporting the COVID-19 Signage effort by shifting the Police’s CFO student workers to FM temporary during the summer. With Alejandro’s skill set and his strong leadership, he led the COVID-19 Signage Installation team throughout the whole summer. Day after day, he planned well for all three installation teams with detailed plans, was extremely organized, well mannered, and responsibly achieved our intensive installation schedules. As a result, 40 buildings were successfully well-prepared to be opened on the first week of fall semester. His hard work and leadership are what made him our COVID-19 Big Cat Hero.


Emily Lin, Head of Digital Curation and Scholarship, UC Merced Library

Nomination Statement: What specifically inspired me to nominate Emily for a Big Cat Award was her exceptional role in the emergency relocation of the archives of the Sequoia-Kings Canyon (SEKI) National Park to UC Merced when wildfire threatened the park earlier this year. Not only did Emily work quickly and effectively to find a way to get the archives to the safety of UC Merced, the relationships she has established with the National Park Service have resulted in the high likelihood that the SEKI archives will permanently remain at UC Merced to become a cornerstone of the Library’s expanding archival holdings related to the Central Valley and Central Sierra Nevada Mountains. I realize that moving the archives was not directly related to COIVD-19, but the entire operation was made more challenging because of the limitations imposed by COVID-19. You can read for yourself the full news report on relocating the archives from SEKI to UC Merced. To me, Emily’s can-do attitude defines a Big Cat Hero and the spirit of UC Merced.


Round 6 Big Cat Heroes

Joseph Garcia, Web Communications Manager, External Relations

Nomination Statement: Joseph Garcia leads the Web Development Team and throughout COVID, he has been tasked with flipping websites at a moment's notice and creating new, comprehensive sites to ensure our campus community has access to the latest information and resources to stay healthy. No matter how busy Joseph is, he always seems ready and willing to assist a colleague with their website-related need. His work, expertise and energetic spirit have been essential to keeping the campus informed in this period of remote operations and he is a pleasure to work with.



Marisa Lopez Alarcon, Student and Community Service Officer Supervisor, Police Department

Nomination Statement: Marisa is in her senior year at UC Merced. She is a UC Merced Police CFO. Chief Her lent a hand to Facilities Management in supporting the COVID-19 Signage effort by shifting the Police’s CFO student workers to FM temporary during the summer. With Marisa’s skill set and her responsible maturity, she became the team leader for the COVID-19 Signage Package Team as well as for all material resource ordering, upkeep and in-house management. Day after day, she works really hard, tracks all details and schedules to coordinate and support the planning/design team and the installation team in the upmost productive efficiency. As a result, 40 buildings were successfully well prepared to be opened on the first week of Fall Semester. Her hard work and contribution are what made her our COVID-19 Cat Hero.


Jorge Arroyo, Director of Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center, Undergraduate Education

Nomination Statement: Since working for UROC, our director Jorge Arroyo, has done nothing but advocate for his scholars and staff. He has pushed us to be the best and provides us with the right tools to be successful in our role and beyond. During these unprecedented times, he has allowed his staff to grow within our capacity creatively. When times are challenging, he promotes self-care, an open and honest line of communication, and grants flexible hours. For our scholars, he goes the extra mile to ensure everyone is safe. He worked with Housing to provide a safe and clean space for our scholars to conduct research over the summer, offered additional financial support, created multiple workshops during the summer geared towards self-care, facilitated open discussion surrounding BLM and COVID challenges, and many open office hours out of his own time. Despite his own challenges, he places his staff and scholars needs above his own and I couldn’t think of a more deserving person for this award.


Round 5 Big Cat Heroes

Jennifer Taylor, Internal Communications Coordinator, External Relations

Nomination Statement: Jenn has been working in internal communications for a couple of years now, and she has been a vocal advocate for staff in particular, along with our other internal audiences. In the early weeks of the pandemic, Jenn spearheaded the creation of Monday Memo, a newsletter for faculty and staff. The publication quickly became a go-to for employees wanting to stay in the know, and for departments across campus to communicate news, information and tips to manage remote work and other complications caused by COVID-19. She has been exceptionally thoughtful in her approach to this newsletter, meeting with key stakeholders in various departments to find creative ways to support and care for our employees. This is all in addition to her work on the weekly ICYMI newsletter and campus announcements, which have been plentiful in recent months.


Phikoun Khamchanh, Benefits Analyst, Human Resources

Nomination Statement: Phikoun has been the voice of the COVID Response Center since the beginning. Phikoun helped to stand the virtual center up and has been answering the phone and emails, as well as responding to “yes” responses in the health symptoms checker. She takes on any duty that is requested of her with a cheerful, “I can take care of that.” I know that she is also balancing the care of her small child and still working with the Benefits office. 




Odalis Rodriquez Velez, Kayla Acevedo Ramirez and Rafael De Sousa Melo, Undergraduate Students and Front Desk Assistants, School of Natural Sciences

Nomination Statement: Our School of Natural Sciences Student Success Unit (NS SSU) student workers are trailblazers and have been very adaptive during our transition to remote operations. All three of them, Odalis Rodriguez, Kayla Acevedo Ramirez and Rafael De Sousa Melo (referred to as our Front Desk Assistants Team), began to re-assemble in early May and quickly adjusted to the remote work format, continuing to perform their duties excellently. More importantly, the three of them work as a great team and “get the job done” very fast.

Our students were put to work on answering our student services email account for placement exam questions while also working on a front desk manual that would incorporate training for both in-person and virtual/hybrid work. These students continuously support our unit’s staff members in a steady stream of projects and tasks, such as assisting the STEM Resource Center and NS SSU with website edits and crafting flyers. Their latest project was to create a video tutorial for our NS majors on how to navigate our advising virtual office hours and upcoming events that will be added to our NS Advising website soon. Our NS SSU staff appreciates Odalis, Kayla and Rafael who always go above and beyond in their call of duties to keep communications flow and help with tasks and. It is clear that without our student workers, our remote operations would be more difficult.

We highly value Odalis, Kayla, and Rafael are hopeful that the Big Cat Hero Award Committee will share our enthusiasm about our students’ work.

Round 4 Big Cat Heroes

Jessica Duffy, Business Architect and Manager, Center for Institutional Effectiveness

Nomination Statement: Jessica was a vital team member to the design, development, and roll out of one of UC Merced’s newest Student Success Programs, New Student Dens. Building a strong working relationship with key Student Affairs campus partners, Jessica helped the campus strategize around continuity of “student experience” despite remote learning. The first year at UC is vitally important to the retention and academic success of our students, especially our many first generation college students. Jessica was a thought leader in designing and bringing to life a virtual environment where students can engage, socialize, and build relationships while away from campus. Her time, efforts and commitment to the success of this program are immeasurable. Even with the New Student Dens fully operational, Jessica remains actively engaged with the Program and UC Merced’s students by serving as a Den Guide for multiple dens.


Dalena Ngo, Interdisciplinary Humanities Graduate Student

Nomination Statement: As a brilliant first-generation college and graduate student with a commitment to using the tools of humanities and the sciences to address health disparities, her work on narrative medicine, universities, HIV/AIDS, and Covid-19 will make an important intervention in multiple academic fields while also enriching public policy discussion and connecting to grassroots activism in underserved communities. As a Teaching Assistant, she has not only helped her students navigate the challenging world on remote instruction, but also paid close attention to their mental and physical well-being. She sees her students not only as scholars, but as people and her intelligence, hard work and empathy are emblematic of the best our campus has to offer.


Nathan Ibarra, Student and Associate in Facilities Management

Nomination Statement: Nathan is a Senior at UC Merced, majoring in Mechanical Engineering. He is one of my lead student workers who has worked for me for 2 years now. He has gone above and beyond from the moment I was tasked to manage the COIVD-19 Signage to now, works along with me for all the Buildings’ the floor path of travel pattern’s planning and design. He also helps me to manage the student workers’ design team for the COVID-19 in-house signage. He works tirelessly to keep up with the intensive schedule, stay ahead in the planning and designs for the signage package team and the signage installation team so that the whole COVID signage team can prepare to reopen every building on campus in the most effective manner. As a result, 40 buildings were successfully well-prepared to be opened on the first week of Fall Semester. He continues with the same effort to prepare for the remaining buildings on campus to be reopened. Nathan’s hard work and contributions are very noticeable. He truly is a COVID-19 Big Cat Hero.


Liza Gomez Daglio, Lecturer, Molecular Cell Biology

Nomination Statement: Liza has been a lecturer since about 2018 at UC Merced, teaching for ESS and QSB. She was teaching for ESS002 in Spring when the COVID-19 restrictions struck us, and she was able to quickly adapt and provide a remote efficient and complete instruction to their students.

It is thanks to her work, her preparation and her initiative that introductory Bio labs have successfully turned into remote instruction this summer and this Fall. She established the contact between Labster and the university so an educative program could be fully offered for the courses of BIO1, BIO2 and BIO3 since this summer.

She has spent extra hours to prepare new activities, apply new remote class strategies and she keeps providing a constant and strong service to her students but also to her peers, co-teachers and faculty.

She is really devoted to her student’s education and their well-being. Recently she joined the UC Merced “Valuing Black Lives Task Force” committee.

Round 3 Big Cat Heroes

Rachel Peters, Learning Technology Manager, OIT

Nomination Statement: Rachel has been critical part of our campus going to remote instructions. She was in charge of multiple projects and is the administrator for CatCourse (Canvas):

Some of the projects that I know she was apart or in charge of include creating the OIT Educational Continuity webpages for faculty, staff and students, setting up a temporary solution for remote labs to allow students access to specialized software when we went remote in March, creating instructions to help faculty integrate Zoom with CatCourse, integrating new Zoom security to prevent Zoom bombing, setting up the Chat feature on the OIT website to give users another avenue to access support than calling, among many other critical projects.

Again, we could have not done remote instruction without Rachel and she has worked tirelessly during COVID-19.


Hala Alnagar, Sociology Ph.D. Candidate and Graduate Student Researcher for EDI

Nomination Statement: Hala was instrumental in the analysis of our People First COVID-19 experience survey conducting focus groups across staff, faculty (senate and non-senate) as well as grad students to ensure we had qualitative data to accompany the quantitative data. She helped develop the recommended actions post-survey as well and presented findings to leadership and our campus community to ensure the findings were accessible to all. She also ensures the People First website is up to date and drafts communications with the same so that our responsiveness is real time and we stay true to our mission of placing our people first.

Additionally, Hala analyzed the childcare survey identifying several pods for our campus community based on location and educational needs of campus families.

Lastly, Hala has been instrumental in supporting our Valuing Black Lives task force providing subcommittees with the foundational documents, guiding questions and ensuring that the work moves forward seamlessly.


John Villalvazo, Student and Resident Service Desk Lead Office Assistant

Nomination Statement: John lead the Resident Service Desk Team through the pandemic outbreak which required the team to prepare for an unexpected move out of over 2000 students. Before signage was available, John created and set up signage at our check out stations, the front desk, and around the California Room to control the flow of traffic and abide by Covid-19 guidelines (floor markers for people to stand 6 ft apart, mask and gloves stations, one-way directional traffic flow, max occupancy in office setting). Due to the timing of the outbreak, many students were also going home for spring break and during that period, our students were informed that they were now under a “shelter in place” order. When the instruction went to online/remote learning, many students decided to stay home. John worked with his team to assist students that didn’t return to campus with getting their mail forwarded and providing them with options for returning their room key while under “shelter in place” orders.

I recommend John without reservation as he has demonstrated authentic leadership and service while working through a virus outbreak, assisting students transition to remote learning, and though it all, always keeping in mind the best interest of our students and their families.


Katie Brokaw, Associate Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures

Nomination Statement: Before the pandemic she was a clear student advocate and wonderful professor. Since the pandemic, she has worked tirelessly to ensure students are not only receiving the quality of education they deserve, but she also prioritizes the safety, health and mental wellbeing of her students above her own needs and desires. In developing her online course, she has intentionally included welfare checkups and social/emotional engagement (e.g., Spotify playlists) for the students. As the Chair of Literature and Languages, she has also given her own time and effort to support others, including all of us TAs, in working through the challenges of online learning. While it is all too common to write these things off as “part of the job,” which has an element of truth, it is her selfless devotion to others which I believe embodies the Bobcat spirit.  I have been privileged to work through my Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Humanities where so many of our professors tirelessly encourage us and support our needs. I feel both honored and privileged to work under Professor Brokaw’s guidance.

Round 2 Big Cat Heroes

Guillermo Rivas, Senior Custodian 

Nomination Statement: I had to go to campus to get my computer fixed. While there, I came across Guillermo (from a distance of course). During these times, kindness makes all the difference. Guillermo is a true act, he was wiping down the surfaces of the building, including door knobs and counters, and as I saw him, his kindness to share a smile underneath his mask, and laugh, brightened the room. It is warm gestures like this that make all the difference in helping us get through these times. These warm acts of kindness mentioned above, strengthen and build a resilient campus.



Justin Hicks, Associate Teaching Professor, Economics and Business Management 

Nomination Statement: I wanted to nominate Professor Justin Hicks for the Big Cat Hero award; he has helped me a lot during my limited time at UC Merced and I think he deserves it. I joined the campus last year as a transfer student and I knew I wanted to make the most of my two years at UC Merced but had no idea what to do. After talking to my fellow econ students, all of them recommended I talk to Professor Hicks. I showed up at his office hours, not even in one of his classes yet, but he was nevertheless willing to help.

Now, during quarantine, he still manages to make his classes as enjoyable as they are in person.  His lectures never fail to create a narrative that truthfully shows the material, all the while making it easy to understand and entertaining. Many students trip and fall over the way, struggling with the difficult math or amount of reading required. However, Professor Hicks is always present for office hours to offer a helping hand to any who arrive, even a random transfer student.


Lisseth Lopez-Ponce, Student

Nomination Statement: As a student, I would like to nominate my peer Lisseth Lopez-Ponce, a third-year Political Science and Spanish double major for the COVID-19 Big Cat Heroes Award. Not only has Lisseth shown incredible resilience in these troubling times, but she has been a major part of our campus through her involvement in organizations and advocacy. Lisseth Lopez Ponce has advocated for financial aid and mental health resources for a variety of students from every background. In addition, Lisseth has served as an excellent example of professionalism, maintaining membership in organizations such as the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-law fraternity and UCM Lobby Corps. Lisseth is known by many of her peers for being highly supportive and motivated to not only better herself, but her community as well. I believe that Lisseth is more than fit for receiving this award, and I could not think of a better nominee. 


Melanie LeGro, Doctoral Candidate and Aristotle House Fellow

Nomination Statement: I enthusiastically nominate Melanie LeGro. Melanie has worked with me since Fall of 2019 in implementing Aristotle House, one of the living-learning communities in the School of Natural Sciences. As a House Fellow, her responsibilities include teaching a one-unit first-year seminar, connecting students to critical campus resources, and engaging LLC students in the hopes they’ll make a home away from home… all of which have been made challenging due to COVID-19. Every step of the way, Melanie’s determination to give her best to her students remains unwaivering. She approaches her work with students with excitement and is energized by the challenge of connecting with students virtually. Her pedagogical approach is a model for all to follow; challenging students to become the best version of themselves while employing empathic and compassionate care for students who are overwhelmed by the transition to UC Merced (all while balancing the responsibilities of a Ph.D. program!). Her desire to mentor and uplift others aligns itself with the our motto: Fiat Lux. Undoubtedly, Melanie shares her light and brings out the light in others.

Round 1 Big Cat Heroes

Dr. Aparupa Sengupta, Biosafety Officer, Environmental Health and Safety

Nomination Statement: I would like to nominate our Campus Biosafety Officer, Dr. Aparupa Sengupta, for a Big Cat Hero Award. Through late nights, early mornings, and countless meetings, she has adapted from managing the research-specific biosafety program to being a subject matter expert on nearly all things COVID-19 on campus. From critically decisive meetings as part of the Emergency Operations Center, to training essential employees on COVID-19-specific cleaning and safety practices, to leading the packaging and shipping operations that allows for COVID-19 diagnostic testing on campus, she takes on all that is asked of her and makes it happen. Through her tireless efforts, she strives to give our community whatever it needs, whether it is a clear path forward, recommendations and guidance, or just plain peace of mind. When it comes to campus contributions in this unsettling time, I cannot think of anyone more deserving of recognition than Aparupa.


Shayna Bennett, Graduate Student

Nomination Statement: In answer to your recent call for "Nominate a Big Cat Hero Today!" I want to nominate graduate student Shayna Bennett ( for the following reasons:

1) For her active support, clarity, and voice to school authorities regarding the changed immigration policies for international graduate students during the COVID-19 period,

2) For her initiative to clarify graduate student doubts about the health insurance problems during the week of Aug 3rd,

3) For her efforts to make sure graduate student concerns during the COVID time are getting raised to the appropriate personals through her work with the GSA,

4) For her effort, with the GSA, to take steps toward Diversity / Action Against Racism in the 2020-2021 Academic Year, and

5) For her work to inform the graduate community of child care funding options during the COVID time.


Grace Newman, Student

Nominated Statement: Recently due to the whole pandemic, us students haven't been able to interact with each other, us freshmen being the most impacted. Due to this, a Senior named Grace Newman (email: took the initiative to connect a lot of us through a social app called Discord. She made a server and now I can talk to a lot of people, so I don't feel alone at all during these times. I hence want to nominate Grace for the Big Cat Hero award.




Carolin Frank, Associate Professor, Life and Environmental Studies

Nominated Statement: I would like to nominate Professor Carolin Frank of the School of Natural Sciences as a Faculty Big Cat Hero. As the Chair of the Senate Committee on Faculty Welfare and Academic Freedom (FWAF), which is (unlike some other positions) an uncompensated position, Carolin has taken upon herself to address welfare issues that became more acute during the Covid-19 emergency, and has reached out beyond faculty, to staff and graduate students who are parents and thus are bearing unprecedentedly heavy burden during this pandemic.

Carolin hosted an online gathering for all parents, and has authored a survey on and is facilitating the potential organization of childcare “pods,” personally identifying possible pods and emailing all parents. She has authored committee memos in spring, summer, and fall, advocating for the mitigation of COVID-19 impacts on faculty with family care responsibilities, and offering actionable solutions.

Carolin has done all of this while she herself is a parent of three children, all of whom are doing schoolwork remotely, on top of her teaching and research activities. I know this because I am the Senate analyst for FWAF, and also her friend since our oldest children were in preschool (now they are both in high school!).

Carolin embodies the spirit of community, by reaching out to all parents, beyond faculty; resilience, by offering workable solutions to address faculty welfare during these difficult times; and heroism, by going above and beyond the call of duty as the FWAF Chair even as she shoulders the additional burden of homeschooling three children.