Natalie Nevarez, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, at work in a lab where she studies the brain chemistry of monogamy. (Courtesy of Natalie Nevarez)

As the daughter of Mexican migrant fruit pickers, Natalie Nevarez saw education as a way out of the worker camps. Her father left school after the third grade; her mother, the sixth. Both of her parents worked in the fields, picking lettuce in Arizona and garlic and strawberries in California.

Now 26, the University of Michigan PhD candidate is days away from defending her doctoral thesis in neurobiology examining how brain chemistry affects monogamous relationships in prairie voles.

It was Nevarez’s compelling backstory that made her the standout for a scholarship competition sponsored by Pornhub, one of the most popular pornography websites on the Internet. On Wednesday, the site announced that Nevarez will be able to complete her doctoral studies with the help of the $25,000 scholarship.

She is the second recipient of the philanthropic gift from Pornhub, which this year sought female candidates studying science, technology, engineering or math “to help draw attention to the glaring under representation of women in the STEM fields.”

In an interview, Nevarez said that she’s sees her own success as a way to help future generations of children of migrant workers and to promote a greater role for women in science.

Her parents, she said, “both really pushed for us to go to school, and I saw that as my ticket out. It was the American dream, really.”

Nevarez said she heard about the Pornhub scholarship through social media from friends, “passing it around like it was some kind of joke or something.”

But Nevarez took the $25,000 offer seriously.

“I understand a lot of the negative connotations about where the money is coming from, but I don’t think that should matter,” Nevarez said. “It can make a tangible difference in what my quality of life is like right now.”

Nevarez also thought that her work tracking the sexual habits of monogamous prairie voles also likely piqued the interest of the scholarship committee at Pornhub.

“I thought that whoever read about a scholarship from Pornhub would also probably find it interesting to read about studying monogamy,” Nevarez said. And she was right.

“We wanted to do our part in not only recognizing women’s outstanding accomplishments in the STEM fields, but also encourage them to continue to achieve both their academic and societal aspirations and make the world around us a better place,” Corey Price, vice president of Pornhub, said in a statement. “Natalie embodies everything we were looking for and more. Her academic achievements in STEM really stood out to us as did her inspiring personal story to give back and provide for her community.”

Growing up, Nevarez awoke at 4 a.m. every morning to help prepare lunch for her parents before they went off to the fields. She taught herself English listening to 2pac and later served as her mother’s translator when she went back to school to get her GED.

Nevarez started college young and received a bachelor’s degree by 19. She studied communications before finding an interest in psychology and working in an animal research lab. She joined the University of Michigan for graduate work in 2012, and in three weeks plans to defend her dissertation.

Her studies on the prairie vole likely could have a significant impact on human health. The prairie vole, Nevarez said, is a rodent that forms a strong monogamous relationship with its mating partner.

“As you can imagine, that’s an extremely rare behavior for a mammal,” Nevarez said in a video she submitted as part of her scholarship application.

What’s more, Nevarez said, her studies have shown that the brain chemistry changes experienced by the voles as they bond is similar to what occurs during drug addiction.

Voles that are in a bonded relationship are not as susceptible to drug addiction, Nevarez said. Likewise, voles that are addicted to a substance have difficulty forming that strong monogamous bond. Nevarez said that her work shows that strong relationships may help humans recovering from drug abuse.

Nevarez said that she’s thrilled to receive the scholarship from Pornhub, even though she agrees that it’s unusual for a pornography website to help fund her pursuits in academia. But in some ways, she said, it’s fitting.

“I look at animals have sex all day,” Nevarez said. “So many hours of my life. It gets very tedious.”