Antiguan Chemistry star Joni Spencer named Rhodes scholar finalist

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By Gisela Valencia for FIU

Senior Joni Spencer is a force to reckon with.

The native of Antigua and Barbuda came to FIU in 2019 and built a top-notch academic career for herself. A chemistry and math major who currently boasts a 4.0 GPA, Spencer was part of a group of Panthers who participated in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research program this past summer. During the program, she analyzed ways to optimize a material for use in batteries for electrical cars — and how to make these cars a more efficient, sustainable alternative to combustion engine cars.

Spencer was recently named a finalist for the internationally recognized 2023 Rhodes Scholarship. The scholarship is often considered the most prestigious international program of its kind in the world and is also the oldest one, first started in 1902. If selected during the next round of interviews, Spencer would receive a scholarship to study full-time, post-graduation at the globally acclaimed University of Oxford.

“I’m so excited,” Spencer says. “I came to study in the U.S. because I wanted to have access to people with different viewpoints. FIU is an incredible school. It has this international community. People at FIU, they are so passionate about their research and so interested in what they are doing. I have come to incorporate it into my life goals to constantly be in an environment with people like that. Going to Oxford would allow me to be in this kind of community, and it would also allow me to learn about more perspectives and viewpoints.”

At FIU, Spencer is part of a lab headed by Alexander Mebel, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, in which she studies chemical reactions that may allow life to be conducive in space. She is a student in the Honors College and a member of various organizations on campus, including the FIU Undergraduate Research Society, as well as a student leader in the National Society of Leadership and Success.

She is a peer learning assistant, helping students in Calculus 3 with their assignments. She was selected for this year’s UN-affiliated Millennium Fellowship, which will allow her to complete a project improving financial literacy among university students and young professionals. As part of a class she took last year with chemistry and biochemistry Professor David Chatfield, she and a group of students also analyzed possible drug treatments for COVID-19.

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Joni Spencer shared a poster presentation of her research at MIT

Spencer’s research specialty is computational chemistry,  a type of chemistry that utilizes computer simulation to help in solving complex problems. Her goal is to use computational chemistry to uncover innovations for sustainable development, and ultimately, to help people protect themselves in the face of climate change.

She is particularly interested in discovering ways fuel cells — cells that do not produce carbon emissions — can be introduced and adopted in technology and products (like cars) in Antigua and Barbuda and across the Caribbean, which is often devastated by natural disasters like hurricanes. These regions, she says, would especially benefit from using renewable energy.

Scientific discoveries could also open the doors to increased alternatives and infrastructure that could help the region prepare for climate events, she adds.

“I want to make sure people get the resources they need in times of crisis,” she says. Her way of helping is through science.

She believes that computational chemistry and machine learning offer a particularly powerful tool to make a difference — and to become a better chemist.

“My knowledge of chemistry has been cemented by doing computational work because you need to know the ins and outs of chemistry,” she says. “The computer doesn’t have a brain. You have to tell it what to do. In the future, I want to make sure that we can find more efficient ways of using the computer for this. As a researcher, I want to use machine learning to study sustainability.”

Being a finalist for the Rhodes scholarship is an important step in Spencer achieving her goals and launching a career of impact.

“Joni is a remarkable young scholar,” says Director of Prestigious Scholar Development Ashley Kuntz. “Her faculty and research supervisors praise her intellect, character and work ethic. We can all be very proud she is representing FIU on the international stage. This is a well-deserved recognition of Joni’s academic accomplishments and of her potential to thrive as a graduate student at Oxford.”

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Yes!! Congratulations to this gifted sister of the soil. Proof positive that we can achieve everything that we want to with dedication and a gifted focused mind. Enough respect!!!!!

  2. Congratulations 🎊 , you can’t beat hard work, devotion to study, and great determination.

    Onwards and upwards young lady … 👏

  3. Superb achievements thus far, and a thirst for learning & excellence. Congratulations Joni! You’re a new role model for our youth.

  4. ONE THOUGHT or TWO
    Everything in life is related to STEM – the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics – and business.

    Congratulations Ms Joni Spencer on your successful journey along the path of STEM!
    Similarly congratulations to the eight students recognized at National Academic Awards on 10/19/22 and a special mention to Chidindu Ohaegbulam with 23 subjects, 21 grade one and two grade two.
    Ms. Joni Spencer, a STEM student, is clear in her thoughts and goals, her words: she is ‘particularly interested in discovering ways fuel cells – cells that do not produce carbon emission – can be introduced and adopted in technology and products (like cars) in Antigua and Barbuda and across the Caribbean, which is often devastated by natural disasters like hurricanes. These regions would especially benefit from using renewable energy. Scientific discoveries could also open the door to increased alternatives and infrastructure that could help the region prepare for climate events.
    Now Mr. Chidindu Ohaegbulam, STEM student, here are his thoughts and goals: ‘ aim to inspire other generations to love Physics. It helps you to see the world in different perspective and wants to teach at Oxford and become a lead researcher.’

    Our education system MUST PRIORITIZE STEM and business curriculum powered by our OECS and Caricom creative Arts in EVERY PUBLIC SCHOOL and INSTITUTION year-round – in school, after school activities, summer.

    Our economic growth and social development REQUIRE that transformation to STEM and business principles, Pre-K to Tertiary, from the colonial education for elite management and unskilled labor.
    We must get rid of our STEM INFERIORITY COMPLEX! STEM is achievable and rewarding for everyone, man and woman. We must want to know STEM and business principles so that we can apply the knowledge mixed with our talent and entrepreneurial spirit, as a career choice, to start and build business enterprises and get things done to produce something of value.

    Save our Humanity, Save our Youths, Save our Environment, Save our Soil!!!

    Respect.

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