SUMMER 2019

2019-2020
Luke Elissiry
2019-2020
Home University: UCLA
Class: junior
Major: Chemistry with Computing Specialization
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Chong Liu

Luke Elissiry is a rising junior at UCLA studying Chemistry with a specialization in Computing. He has been working in Professor Chong Liu’s lab since March 2018, developing a replacement for traditional fertilizers utilizing symbiotic, nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

The detrimental effects of traditional fertilizers, such as eutrophication and groundwater contamination, as well as rising global food demand, require environmentally sustainable fertilizer alternatives. A select subset of bacteria is able to fix nitrogen for their host plants, making bacterial inoculation of plants a promising fertilizer replacement. However, the method of inoculant delivery must be compatible with existing agricultural techniques while maintaining viability and providing protection to the bacteria. Luke is investigating the use of a silica matrix to encapsulate a nitrogen-fixing bacterium, Sinorhizobium meliloti. The bacteria and silica precursors are combined in solution before being sprayed onto seeds as microbead droplets, which solidify within several minutes through the sol-gel process. This novel technique of inoculant application aims to maintain long-term viability of the microbes during storage and inoculant delivery. This research will contribute to the advancement of microbe carriers and offers a promising pathway to environmentally friendly agricultural practices.

After completion of his undergraduate degree, Luke plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. Luke would like to thank the Amgen Foundation for the generous opportunity to advance his scientific career, the Undergraduate Research Center – Sciences for supporting his growth as a scientific researcher, and Professor Chong Liu and his lab for their invaluable mentorship.

Sarah Furman
2019-2020
Home University: Rowan University
Class: junior
Major: Biomedical Engineering
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Jeff Abramson

Sarah is a rising junior majoring in biomedical engineering at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey. There she works as an undergraduate researcher in a lab studying mesenchymal stem cell differentiation due to micro-environmental controls.

As an Amgen Scholar, she is working in the laboratory of Dr. Jeff Abramson in the department of physiology. Her project in this lab focuses on creating a biochemical assay to monitor the breakdown of diacetyl during fermentation. To create fermented beverages, such as beers and ales, yeast undergoes fermentation. A key process in this fermentation is the breakdown of glucose, which creates byproducts that are unnecessary for fermentation. One of these such products is diacetyl, or 2,3 butanediol. Not only is this product unnecessary, it creates a butter like flavor that is unwanted in most beverages. To continue fermentation, brewers must wait for the diacetyl to be further broken down by an enzyme called butanediol dehydrogenase. Larger companies can use mass spectrometry to determine when diacetyl levels are low, but many brewers do not have access to this high end machinery. To combat this, Sarah is working to create a colorimetric assay using his-tagged butanediol dehydrogenase to determine when enough diacetyl has been converted to allow continuation of the brewing process.

Sarah would like to thank the Amgen Scholars program at UCLA for this opportunity as well as Dr. Jeff Abramson and her student mentor Kristopher Gonzalez-Dewitt for their support and assistance in broadening her research career.

Jessica Kahng
2019-2020
Home University: Bryn Mawr College
Class: senior
Major: Biology
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Samantha Butler

Jessica Kahng is a rising senior, majoring in Biology and minoring in Neuroscience at Bryn Mawr College. There she works in the Greif Lab, researching the role of the calcium-sensor protein, synaptotagmin-1, in terms of axonal branching during development.

As an Amgen Scholar at UCLA, Jessica is working in the laboratory of Dr. Samantha Butler and under the mentorship of Sandy Alvarez. She is researching the guidance factor, netrin1, and its role in commissural axons growth during spinal cord development in chicken and mouse embryos. The Butler Lab’s previous research established a novel model for netrin1 in which netrin1 derived from the ventricular zone is responsible for guiding commissural neurons ventrally to and across the midline during development. In addition, this model proposes that netrin1 works in a local manner through haptotaxis, or growth directed along an adhesive surface, with netrin1 working as an adhesive guidance cue. Netrin1 has continued to be researched in the lab, and recent findings have indicated the possibility of netrin1 existing in various cleaved forms, or isoforms, in the spinal cord during development; an existence that has not been documented previously. Jessica’s project therefore focuses on identifying and characterizing netrin1 isoforms in the developing spinal cord of chicken and mice by dissecting out spinal cords from various embryonic stages and processing them using Western Blot Analysis.

Jessica would like to thank the members of the Butler Laboratory for their guidance and the Amgen Foundation for providing such an invaluable research opportunity.

Daniel Kojis
2019-2020
Home University: University of Wisconsin, Madison
Class: senior
Major: Statistics
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Christina Ramirez

Daniel Kojis is a rising senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison double majoring in Statistics and Political Science. As an Amgen Scholar, he is working in the Department of Biostatistics with Dr. Christina Ramirez as they conduct machine learning research.

Machine learning is widely used in medical settings for both prediction and discovering relevant factors. Their research focuses on extending a current machine learning method, random forests, to better incorporate longitudinal data and handle a high number of correlated variables. They expect to develop a new algorithm that will allow for better variable selection and prediction. Among other practical applications, this method could be used to predict if an individual will develop a disease, to determine the contributing factors of surgery outcomes, or to predict drug responses on medical patients.

Daniel would like to thank the Amgen foundation and his mentor Christina Ramirez for supporting his growth as a researcher.

Christy Luong
2019-2020
Home University: UCLA
Class: senior
Major: Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Kathrin Plath

Christy is a rising senior at UCLA majoring in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology with a minor in Biomedical Research. Christy has been an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Kathrin Plath’s lab since fall quarter of freshman year. Christy’s research aims to investigate the mechanism by which Xist RNA transcriptionally silences the X-chromosome through super resolution imaging.

X-chromosome inactivation (XCI) occurs in female mammals to compensate for dosage difference of X-linked genes between sexes. During embryonic development both X-chromosomes are active and XCI is induced upon differentiation. Xist RNA is a long non-coding RNA that spreads in cis as a ‘cloud’ on one of the two X-chromosomes and mediates silencing. Super resolution microscopy (SRM) revealed approximately 100 distinct granules on the inactive X-chromosome (Xi). To elucidate the dynamic behavior of Xist in living cells, Christy utilizes an MS2-MS2 Coat Protein (MCP) phage system to indirect label Xist RNA with a fluorescent protein fusion. The distributions of Xist granules are observed by live-cell SRM imaging and their trajectories are monitored with single particle tracking analysis. Furthermore, to gain a better insight on the mechanism behind Xist stabilization and maintenance, RNA binding proteins (RBPs) known to interact with Xist are fused with fluorescent protein tags in order to observe the kinetics of these proteins in photo-bleaching experiments. By studying Xist RNA, Christy is hoping to better understand the role of long non-coding RNAs in epigenetics.

Christy would like to thank the Plath lab, Amgen Foundation, and the Biomedical Research minor for investing time, effort, and money into her growth as a future researcher.

Heather Romero Mercieca
2019-2020
Home University: University of California, Irvine
Class: senior
Major: Biomedical Engineering
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Aaron Meyer

Heather is a rising senior at the University of California, Irvine. Heather spends her extra time involved in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and Ballet Folklorico de UCI. She is passionate about bringing STEM opportunities to her community, the latinx community. At UCLA this summer, she is researching cytokines which are a type of cell signaling protein that are secreted from one cell and recognized by another to regulate immune response. The IL-2 cytokine family is of particular importance as engineered variants of IL-2 could help treat immune diseases such as cancer. Our objective is to analyze protein abundance data, specifically of the three IL-2 receptor components present on the cell surface of different immune cell lines, to understand how each protein influences the activity of the cell. At different time points, the activity and receptors were quantified using flow cytometry — the former by looking at pSTAT5 presence in the cell. IL-2 binds to IL-2R and triggers the signaling pathway which leads to the output of pSTAT5. The high-throughput flow cytometry data was taken for visualization and analysis in Python using the package FlowCytometryTools. Data analysis is used to find relations between receptor components across IL-2 variants such as IL-15. Machine learning could be applied to look for patterns such as multivariate predictors of IL-2 response, or how the relationship between IL-2R components and response changes with IL-2 dose or time.

Nicholas Page
2019-2020
Home University: Rutgers-New Brunswick
Class: senior
Major: Cell Biology and Neuroscience with minor in Computer Science
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Michael Gandal (shown) and Dr. Daniel Geschwind

Nick is a rising senior studying Cell Biology and Neuroscience at Rutgers-New Brunswick. At his home institution, Nick studies the role of RNA-binding proteins (RBPs) and post-transcriptional regulation in the development of the neocortex under the guidance of Dr. Mladen-Roko Rasin. His work has uncovered the isoform and cell-type specific effects of the RBP HuD on cell-fate in the neocortex.

During his time at UCLA, Nick is studying gene expression in the brains of mice and monkeys exposed to maternal immune activation (MIA) during in utero development. Large epidemiological studies have shown that an infection during pregnancy can lead to increased risk for schizophrenia and autism, therefore studying the molecular mechanism through which MIA effects brain development is crucial to understanding the cause of these diseases. Nick will analyze two large RNA-seq datasets from both adult mice and monkeys to understand the long-term effects of in utero MIA on brain development and to uncover the gene expression changes that underlie the behavioral changes seen in these model organisms.

Nick would like to the Gandal and Geschwind labs for mentoring him, and would also like to thank the Amgen Foundation and the Autism Science Foundation for funding his research at UCLA this summer.

Arjun Ramachandran
2019-2020
Home University: St. Olaf College
Class: senior
Major: Biology and Neuroscience
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Felix Schweizer

Arjun Ramachandran is a senior Biology major with a Neuroscience concentration at St. Olaf College where he studies head direction cells and neural mechanisms for spatial navigation with Dr. Gary Muir. The Muir lab is interested in developing an affordable, open-source microdrive array for chronic in vivo recordings of head direction cells.

At UCLA, Arjun works in Dr. Felix Schweizer’s lab in the Department of Neurobiology studying environmental factors responsible for increasing the risk of developing Parkinson’s Disease. In particular, the Schweizer lab is studying ziram – an agricultural pesticide – which modulates synaptic transmission by directly inhibiting E1 Ligase, the first enzyme in the ubiquitin signaling system (USS). The USS plays a crucial role in modulating synaptic transmission through post-translational modifications (PTMs) of pre-synaptic proteins. Specifically, vesicle associated membrane protein (VAMP2) – a SNARE protein that mediates vesicle fusion with the plasma membrane – is of interest: two of its lysine-residues are ubiquitinated and the PTMs are disrupted by ziram. We are now testing the role of ziram on synaptic transmission by substituting the wild-type VAMP2 with a mutant version of VAMP2 where the two crucial lysine residues have been replaced with arginine residues. We hypothesize that neurons with the mutant VAMP2 will be less sensitive to the action of ziram than the wild-type VAMP2 will be.

Arjun would like to thank the Amgen Scholars Program for the opportunity and the Schwiezer lab for its guidance.

Hsuan-Te (Miriam) Sun
2019-2020
Home University: California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
Class: senior
Major: Biology
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Jau-Nian Chen

Miriam is a rising senior at the California Institute of Technology majoring in Biology. At Caltech, she works in the Stathopoulos lab studying the dynamics of cell migration using the Drosophila model system.

As part of the UCLA Amgen Scholars program, Miriam is working in Dr. Jau-Nian Chen’s lab in the department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology. The Chen lab uses the zebrafish model to study the genetic, molecular, and cellular bases of the cardiovascular system during normal development and in diseases. Miriam’s project focuses on determining the role of mitochondrial regulation in proper cardiac development. She will be taking super-resolution images of mitochondrial colocalization with the cardiomyocyte network, as well as analyzing the phenotypes of various mitochondrial transport protein mutants. Previous research in the lab revealed the functional defects of cardiac myopathy and arrhythmia in certain mutant lines, and Miriam will be now doing structural immunohistochemical analysis of the adult zebrafish hearts as well as RNA-Seq transcriptomic analysis of day 5 embryo hearts, when the first signs of cardiac dysfunction appear. Following up on all of these angles will hopefully help fill in the gaps of knowledge about the conserved mitochondrial effect on heart development, possibly leading to applications for the prevention and treatment of congenital heart diseases in humans.

Miriam would like to thank the Amgen Foundation for making the Amgen Scholars program at UCLA possible. In addition, she thanks Dr. Chen and Adam Langenbacher for supporting her growth as a researcher.

Abby Thurm
2019-2020
Home University: UCLA
Class: senior
Major: Biochemistry
Faculty Mentor: Dr. William Gelbart

Abby is a rising fourth-year biochemistry at UCLA and has worked for Dr. William Gelbart since her freshman year. The lab researches primarily physical virology, aiming to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms behind viral self-assembly and disassembly. In recent years, they have begun trying to harness these properties for pharmaceutical applications as well as capitalizing on the use of self-amplifying viral genomes as therapeutics.

Abby’s current project aims to develop an antiviral therapy against yellow fever virus via the use of defective-interfering RNA. She creates defective truncates of the yellow fever genome, replicable by viral proteins synthesized by infected cells, and delivers them to cells so that they will sequester cellular and viral resources. The full-length yellow fever then cannot replicate and package at as high a rate, and infection will die off as the viral proteins cease to be made and only the shorter, harmless truncates are replicated. Previously, Abby has studied the effects of RNA secondary structure on viral assembly and hopes to use this knowledge to package and deliver her successful antiviral candidates.

Abby would like to thank Drs. William Gelbart and Charles Knobler for their constant support of her work, and the Amgen Foundation for allowing her the opportunity to focus on research for the summer.

Annabel Vernon
2019-2020
Home University: Scripps College
Class: senior
Major: Biochemistry
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Steven Clarke

Annabel is a rising senior at Scripps College majoring in biochemistry. At her home institution, she works in Dr. Emily Wiley’s lab studying H3 histone clipping in T. thermophila. Her research includes exploring the purpose of this clipping as well as identifying and characterizing the protease implicated in this process.

As a part of UCLA’s Amgen Scholars Program, Annabel is working in Dr. Steven Clarke’s lab in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The Clarke lab focuses on understanding a group of nine enzymes called protein arginine methyltransferases (PRMT1-9). The enzyme PRMT7 transfers one methyl group from the cofactor S-adenosylmethionine to a target arginine residue to form monomethylarginine. PRMT7 is implicated in processes including transcriptional regulation, stem cell pluripotency, and DNA repair. While PRMT7’s substrates have not been established in vivo, histones H2B and H4 have been identified as such in vitro. Interestingly, PRMT7 is inhibited by salt concentrations typically found in cells. Annabel’s project focuses on testing the inhibition of PRMT7 by a variety of physiologically relevant salts and confirming whether human PRMT7 interacts directly with zinc as mouse PRMT7 is known to do. Gaining a better understanding of how human PRMT7 interacts with its surroundings will help identify the ions PRMT7 may be regulated by in vivo.

Annabel would like to thank the Amgen Foundation for this amazing opportunity as well as the Clarke Lab for guiding her along the way to becoming a better researcher and scientist.

Shelby Vexler
2019-2020
Home University: UCSB
Class: senior
Major: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Douglas Black

Shelby Vexler is a rising fourth year at UC Santa Barbara majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular. Since spring of 2017, she has been working in Dr. Deborah Fygenson’s lab in UCSB’s Physics Department. There, she helps optimize DNA origami devices that can take dynamic measurements of the bend angles induced in double stranded DNA by proteins.

As a UCLA Amgen Scholar, Shelby is working in Dr. Douglas Black’s lab, which focuses on understanding how pre-mRNA splicing is regulated. The U2 snRNP is one of the main small nuclear riboproteins that mediates the assembly of the spliceosome, which catalyzes the splicing of the pre-mRNA. However, it is difficult to purify native U2 from high molecular weight extracts. This summer, she is working on purifying an antibody for the U2 protein SF3A3 that can be used to purify U2 from a variety of native human and mouse tissues. Once purified U2 is obtained, the pre-mRNA bound to the U2 snRNP can be obtained and sequenced, determining where the U2 protein is interacting across the transcriptome.

Shelby would like to thank the Amgen Foundation for providing this opportunity at UCLA. Additionally, she would like to thank her mentors in the Black Lab for their support of her summer research.

Shinya Wai
2019-2020
Home University: University of California, San Diego
Class: senior
Major: NanoEngineering
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Andrea Kasko

Shinya is a rising senior at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) majoring in NanoEngineering and minoring in Chemistry. At UCSD, he works in Dr. Nisarg Shah’s lab. The lab is interested in synthesizing biomaterials for immunomodulation and cellular engineering. At the Shah lab, Shinya is working on testing the effects of specific proteins on T cells and using the in vitro experimental results to synthesize protein conjugated biopolymers for alleviating and possibly curing autoimmune arthritis.

As a UCLA Amgen Scholar, Shinya is working in Dr. Andrea Kasko’s lab in the Department of Bioengineering where he works on the synthesis of polymeric tobacco tar mimics for testing the role of the innate immune system in tobacco related diseases. Recent findings have shown that receptors in the innate immune system can recognize complexes formed between DNA and cationic molecules. The innate immune response varies based on inter-ligand spacing and the number of repeating ligands. Furthermore, there is extensive correlational evidence that suggest that cigarette smoke can cause the dysregulation of the immune system. Preliminary studies have revealed several alkaloids in cigarette smoke that, if polymerized, can theoretically complex with DNA and interact with receptors in the innate immune system. Shinya’s work is based on the hypothesis that tobacco tar can form pro-inflammatory complexes with DNA to exacerbate certain autoimmune diseases.

Shinya would like to thank the Amgen Foundation, Professor Kasko, Brooke Jackson, and Shouzheng Yue for their guidance and support.

Daniel Yong
2019-2020
Home University: University of Chicago
Class: junior
Major: Biological Sciences
Faculty Mentor: Dr. Thomas Graeber

Daniel is a rising third-year at the University of Chicago majoring in biological sciences. At UChicago, he is an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Erin Adams’ lab, where he investigates molecular immune system interactions from a structural standpoint.

At UCLA, Daniel is conducting research under Dr. Thomas Graeber in the Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology. His research this summer intends to identify key genes that promote chromosomal instability. Chromosomal instability, alongside aneuploidy, is a highly common characteristic of cancer that is predictive of poor patient outcomes. These chromosomal abnormalities are believed to be linked to whole genome duplication, a distinct event where the entire genome is duplicated. To achieve this project’s goals, genotoxic small molecule drug treatment will be used to induce polyploidy in a colorectal cancer cell line. Transduction of a CRISPR construct and barcode library and a subsequent knockout screen will be used prior to flow cytometry to sort cells into high chromosomal instability and low chromosomal instability populations. These cell populations will then be sequenced to identify which barcodes are enriched and de-enriched, which will help identify key genes leading to chromosomal instability.

Daniel would like to thank the Amgen Foundation, Dr. Thomas Graeber, his postdoctoral mentor Nikolas Balanis, and the rest of the Graeber Lab for supporting, mentoring, and encouraging his development as a scientist.

2018-2019
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2017-2018
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