UCSB graduate student Alejandra Jaramillo is one of 15 recipients worldwide of the prestigious United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization-L’Oréal Fellowship for Young Women in Life Sciences, recognizing her work in parasitology and epidemiology.

Of the 165 fellows named since 2000, Jaramillo is the first UCSB student — fourth from the UC system overall — and first Panamanian citizen to receive the honor. The $40,000 scholarship is intended to finance the education of women around the globe, affording them the opportunity to conduct research outside their home countries.

Jaramillo said she is studying the immune systems of fish and how genetic alterations can be wrought by pathogens.

“I’m looking into how the pressures of the parasite in the population can lead to evolution,” Jaramillo said. “I’m mostly focusing on the fish I work with along the California coast, throughout different estuaries. I am looking at all the parasites and trying to find any genetic evidence to see whether the parasite is affecting the fish population.”

Jaramillo, one of the five nominees from the Latin American region, said she did not expect the distinction of being the first honoree to represent Panama.

“You apply in May, and you don’t hear anything, absolutely anything, until September,” Jaramillo said. “So at first you’re sort of counting down the days until you hear, until you’re at the point where you kind of give up, and I only heard at the very end of September. So I had already thought that I definitely did not get it.”

Although each country is allowed to nominate candidates, ecology, evolution and marine biology professor Armand Kuris said only three finalists are selected from each continent to ensure equitable distribution of awards across the globe.

“Looking over the several layers in the selection process, it is a worldwide search for which the 15 women are selected from among perhaps thousands who applied at the start of the selection process,” Kuris said.

According to Kuris, the fellowship promotes women’s right to a quality education.

“The L’Oréal/UNESCO program highlights the potential for women from around the world, including many regions where women are at a severe cultural disadvantage to excel in science,” Kuris added.

In addition, Jaramillo said she hopes to further the education of disadvantaged children in her homeland.

“I also think that we need to keep supporting not only women in general but just young scientists around the world,” Jaramillo said. “It would be nice to go back and find ways to support young scientists in Latin America.”

Upon completion of her Ph.D., Jaramillo said she intends to use her expertise to the benefit of her native country, which made her education possible.

“I want to go back to Panama, and I would give back to them,” Jaramillo said. “The Panamanian government funded my research by giving me a scholarship, so they have been supporting me the entire way, which I really appreciate.”