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Marcia Chavez thought she wanted to be a clinical psychologist, but after working in a research lab as an undergraduate in California, she was fascinated to learn the possible link between mental health disorders, adolescent development, and gender.

A third-year PhD student in experimental psychology who will graduate in May 2023, Chavez is one of five PhD students recently honored as Tennessee Doctoral Fellows.

Tennessee Doctoral Fellows are chosen every three years; this is only the second group of fellows at UT. The fellowships are funded by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and UT’s Graduate School.

Recipients are chosen from nominations campus-wide. The three-year awards consist of a $20,000 fellowship, a 25 percent assistantship in the fellow’s home department, a tuition waiver, and $2,500 for conference travel or other academic expenses. In addition, the fellows enjoy networking and professional development opportunities and are paired with a faculty mentor.

Chavez, of Bakersfield, California, completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at California State University Bakersfield. She earned her master’s degree in psychological science from California State University San Marcos.

At UT she works in Assistant Professor Kalynn Schulz’s Neurobiology of Mental Illness Lab, where she studies the role testosterone and estrogen exposure at puberty plays in mental health.

“Scientists thought that increases in testosterone and estrogen at puberty were mainly important for reproductive maturation, but recent research suggests these hormones are also important for mental health,” she said. “On average, girls are going through puberty earlier than they used to, and we’re seeing increases in diagnoses for anxiety, depression, substance use, and eating disorders. For boys, we see the opposite: later pubertal timing increases the risk for substance use and conduct disorders.

“My focus is to investigate the impact that pubertal timing and the role of hormones at puberty have on anxiety, depression, and cognitive function both during adolescence and at adulthood.”

Chavez sees herself growing both academically and professionally at UT.

“The department is highly supportive of its students, and UT is welcoming and supportive of students and faculty from diverse backgrounds,” she said, adding that her mentor, Kalynn Schulz, assistant professor of psychology, has helped her succeed.

Receiving this fellowship will help me build my peer and professional network and will provide me with access to many professional development opportunities,” she said. “The additional financial support will also allow me to spend more of my time in the lab, where I can focus on my dissertation work.”​