Webster University SPICE Alumni Land Research Careers At Ivy League Universities
Two international alumni have landed prestigious positions as researchers at Ivy-League institutions and they say they owe their success to their experience at Webster University.
Manuel León Hoyos and Luisa Mercado entered Webster University because of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence, (SPICE) chess team. But their interactions with faculty, staff and other students helped prepare them for their future careers, they said.
León Hoyos: Chess and Economics
Since he learned to play chess as a 7-year-old, chess has been a life-changing experience for León Hoyos. By 9 he was competing internationally and when he was a teen-ager, competed in more than 30 countries, earned the International Grandmaster title and represented Mexico in a World Cup and three Olympiads.
'I don't know where I would be right now without chess,' León Hoyos said.
When it came time to attend college, León Hoyos was drawn to Webster University in 2012 because of Chess Coaches Susan Polgar and Paul Truong. In his first year at Webster, he won the U.S. Open in Vancouver, Washington and he later played on several of the Webster teams that earned the National Collegiate Championships.
When he wasn't playing chess, he attended classes in the College of Arts & Sciences and the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology in the economics and international relations programs. During his off-time, he was actively involved on campus, which he said helped him gain skills in leadership, team-building, and research.
León Hoyos served as the president of the Latin American Student Organization, first president of the Webster Economic Association, and co-founder member of both the Webster Finance and Investment Club and the Honors Society of International Studies, also known as Sigma Iota Rho. He was recognized at the Student Leadership awards ceremony for his contributions to campus social life. In 2015, his experience at Webster earned him a summer internship in Geneva at the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the United Nations.
'The SPICE program provided me such a great opportunity to combine academics and chess,' León Hoyos said. 'The combination of playing chess, the academic programs and campus life helped me apply my strategic skills to life outside of chess.'
León Hoyos graduated with a double bachelor's degree in Economics and International Relations and later earned a master's degree in International Relations.
Over the summer, he landed a job as a research associate at the Yale University Program on Finance Stability within the Yale School of Management, whose mission is to create, disseminate, and preserve knowledge about financial crises. León Hoyos works with the New Bagehot Project, which develops case studies related to financial crises and interventions deployed by policymakers. In addition, he engages in strategic thinking on government responses to financial crises, researching and collecting information from official documents and conducting interviews with policymakers.
León Hoyos learned a lot from his team at the Yale Program on Financial Stability, including his director Andrew Metrick, Professor of Finance at Yale - who is a leading scholar of the subject of financial crises. He hopes to earn a Ph.D. in economics now.
'I'm very passionate about economics and international relations, so this job is a great fit for me. I learned a lot from my team at the Yale Program on Financial Stability' León Hoyos said. 'Thanks to all my Webster experiences, I feel more confident when doing my job. I'm very thankful to Webster University and the SPICE Program.'
For current and future Webster students, León Hoyos has some words of advice : 'Take advantage of all the opportunities that Webster University offers. It is truly a global university where one can develop immensely.'
Mercado on Chess at Webster
Even before Mercado was old enough to seriously consider college, she was fully aware of Webster University. The native of Colombia was a chess prodigy as a child and traveled the world to compete in international competitions. As a result, she knew about Coach Polgar, the first female chess player to qualify for the Men's World Championship . When she was selected to represent her country at the SPICE Annual Girls Invitation in 2013, she was thrilled as it was a chance to learn from Polgar directly.
Her trip paid off. She won the tournament and earned a scholarship to Webster University.
'Chess helped me to learn how to think strategically and logically,' said Mercado. 'I also feel that it helped me to get to know myself better because as a game that requires a lot of mind power and strategic thinking, it prompted me to understand why I think in certain ways.'
After arriving at Webster in 2014 as a student, the SPICE Program motivated her to perform better academically than she had in previous years and influenced her work ethic. She said the support of her coaches Polgar and Truong and her teammates were an essential part of her transition to the United States.
'Being in the SPICE Program taught me that - in order to achieve success, it is important to work hard, be a team player, and always think about how to contribute positively to the team,' Mercado said.
Besides excelling in her classes, Mercado's involvement on campus helped her developed leadership skills. The most rewarding experience was serving as the president of the Latin American Student Organization (LSSO) because she got the chance to share her Colombian culture and she was able to meet students who are now some of her closest friends.
She also completed an internship at Princeton University during the summer of her junior year. Later in her senior year, she conducted independent research and present a thesis project. The research experience exposed her to the research process. Mercado attained a Bachelor of Science in Computational Biology and graduated as Summa Cum Laude in 2018. Her education helped her apply knowledge to her current data curator position.
Today, she is assistant data curator in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard University. She works at the Data Coordination and Integration Center and is responsible for curating the publications and organizing relevant information from publications on an interactive online portal - in order to make data and studies easily accessible for people. Although her job can be challenging at times, she enjoys it and it allows her to learn about different types of studies and research techniques. Mercado values this experience and takes as preparation for graduate school and her career in science.
Mercado says her Webster experience has positively shaped her personal and professional life in many ways. Her encouraging words to Webster students are: 'When you work hard for what you want, even greater opportunities than you ever imagined will open up for you. My education at Webster provided me with a solid understanding in the fundamentals of biology and math along with familiarity with different computational techniques to analyze and manipulate large biological data,' she said. 'I am now applying this knowledge to understand scientific literature, retrieve the most relevant information from such literature, and make biological data more accessible and manageable via technology.'