Dr. Zhefeng Guo

Meet Dr. Zhefeng Guo, a professor in the Department of Neurology at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. During the 2023 UCLA Undergraduate Research Week, Dr. Guo received a Faculty Mentor Award—an award that honors the considerable dedication of UCLA faculty who consistently and enthusiastically serve as effective mentors to undergraduate students involved in research. We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Guo on his experience mentoring undergraduate students in his lab.

1. How would you describe your experiences with undergraduate research at UCLA?

My experiences with undergraduate research have been pleasantly surprising and extremely rewarding. I have to admit that, although initially I underestimated the capabilities of our undergraduate students, I quickly found out that they always exceeded my expectations no matter what kinds of projects I gave them. Many undergraduate students in my lab have been first authors of our peer-reviewed research publications. Our undergraduates have continuously proven that they are among the best at performing scientific research. Many of my students have gone on to pursue their own careers in prestigious M.D., Ph.D., and M.D./Ph.D. programs, and won competitive research awards. It’s extremely rewarding knowing that I have the opportunity to support them at an early stage of their career and see them grow into fully independent researchers.

2. What advice do you have for faculty who are considering mentoring undergraduate researchers in their lab?

When considering being a mentor to undergraduate students I think it is important to give everyone a chance and to have patience with them as everyone has a different reason for getting involved in research.  While some students may simply want to enhance their resume for medical school applications, the majority of them coming into research have a genuine interest in science and are extremely capable. These students can help propel research projects forward on their own if given the chance to grow and shine. It is equally important to determine what degree of mentorship a student needs, depending on their goals and experience, to do the best you can as a mentor.

3. What resources at UCLA do you consider the most beneficial for including undergraduates in research activities?

Most students find my research through the Undergraduate Research Portal where I post research opportunities throughout the year. However, another resource I found to be beneficial is the Biomedical Research Minor program. Dr. Ira Clark, the program Director, has recommended several students from the Minor to my lab. Every one of them has been excellent.

4. What are some important considerations that undergraduates should consider before starting research?

I think the most important factor to consider is to determine your reason for getting involved in research. Research should not be used as a means to an end. Determine whether you are genuinely interested in science and research and what about it you find interesting. If unsure, talk to fellow students who are currently doing research in a lab. Ask them about their experience: if they enjoy doing research and what they like and don’t like about it. After joining a research lab, put in the time and give your 100%. You will find it to be a highly rewarding and engaging experience during your undergraduate career.

Vivien Su

Meet Vivien Su, a 4th year Molecular, Cell & Developmental Biology (MCDB) major and Biomedical Research minor. Vivien is part of the 2023-2024 Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP), a three-quarter scholarship program that supports students conducting a life science, physical science, or engineering research project. This past summer, Vivien participated in the 2023 URC-Sciences Summer Program, a 10-week opportunity for UCLA undergraduates to undertake research with a UCLA faculty and receive professional development through workshops and seminars. Additionally, Vivien is taking the MCDB 198 honors research series and is working on a biomedical research minor senior thesis. We had the chance to hear more about Vivien’s research experience at UCLA:

1. How did you first get involved in your research project?

After being exposed to so many fascinating research topics in my introductory biology classes, I wanted to become involved in UCLA’s amazing legacy of scientific exploration and discovery. I started cold emailing professors the summer after my freshman year, hoping to join a group that investigated epigenetics, cancer, and/or molecular diseases. By luck and good faith, I found the lab that was meant for me. They took a chance on me and taught me everything I know, from pipetting and culturing cells to becoming an independent thinker. I spent the first six months learning the basic molecular biology lab techniques. Once I was able to stand on my own two feet, I was given my own project, which is really an extension of a work previously started and published by my direct mentor Dr. Zhengyi Zhang.

2. How would you describe your research experience at UCLA?

My research experience at UCLA has been extremely fulfilling and eye-opening–it’s everything that I thought it would be and more. When I first joined my lab, I was intimidated and doubtful of myself because I had no prior research experience. However, my mentor and labmates believed in me and were more than willing to guide me, allowing me to thrive and accomplish things I had never imagined. Soon enough, I was utilizing techniques that I had previously only read about in my classes (e.g. quantitative polymerase chain reactions and western blots) to explore cutting-edge questions at the frontiers of obesity and metabolism. It’s one thing to learn about these skills and another to apply them in real time. In addition, having the space to make mistakes allowed me to grow as a problem-solver, which in turn, instilled a newfound sense of confidence in me. Having the immense privilege of investigating issues that could potentially have implications for human health and disease has been nothing short of incredible. My lab has truly become my second home at UCLA, and my mentors and coworkers, whom I cherish greatly, are an instrumental part of my undergraduate experience.

3. What is one piece of advice you have for other students thinking about getting involved in research?

Be kind and patient to yourself, and trust in the process. It is okay to not hear a “yes” after the first twenty emails you send. It is okay to go back to the drawing board after an experiment fails. It is okay to not know everything immediately. Having the right mindset and the will to persevere in the face of adversity are key. Surround yourself with people who will nurture your growth and recognize your potential. You’re running a marathon, evolving and growing along the way, so give yourself the space to fall down, but then pick yourself back up again. I guarantee you that if you stick with it, nothing can stop you.

4. Have you attended a conference before? If so, can you describe your experience on preparation, presenting, etc.?

I had the immense honor of presenting at the Department of Medicine Research Day in November 2022 and in UCLA’s Bruins-in-Genomics symposium the summer prior. I also participated in the 2023 Undergraduate Research Showcase this past May. All of these experiences have been so rewarding and memorable. I am always so inspired when I hear about all the remarkable work that my peers are doing. I cannot stress enough how important it is to broaden your horizons and become exposed to fields outside of your home area. Moreover, receiving feedback and guidance from people outside of my lab at these events have always been incredibly insightful. There really is no other feeling than immersing yourself in a community of scholars that share the same passion and hunger for research as you do, so I encourage you to not to be nervous but instead excited to share your accomplishments!

To prepare for conferences, I first consolidate all of my data/results and then put myself in the shoes of someone who is completely unfamiliar with my research to identify the key pieces of information that I need to underscore. After I have a rough outline going, I then work together with my mentor Dr. Zhang and P.I. Dr. Tamer Sallam to fill in the gaps and mold the presentation into a coherent and impactful story. And then it’s all about practice, practice, practice! I like to practice in front of my lab group, family, and friends. Ultimately, you want to have your own idea of how to present your story first and then modify it according to the feedback you receive. New perspectives are refreshing and can open your eyes to parts of your presentation that may have been unclear, so do not be afraid to rely on your circles.

5. What are your future career goals?

I want to become a physician scientist and pursue an MD-PhD after undergrad and a year of working in research. I am open to exploring a myriad of different fields but see myself most likely doing something in metabolism, cancer, or pediatrics. The dream right now is to treat patients and in tandem perform wet-lab research in the corresponding field. The idea of investigating the mechanism and underpinnings of the treatments that I prescribe to patients and being able to appreciate both the non-clinical and clinical aspects of medicine immensely excites me.

Blake Williams

Meet Blake Williams: a 4th year biochemistry major and biomedical research minor. During the Summer 2023 Sessions, Blake was a member of the California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) program. CAMP is an NSF-funded program shared across nine UC campuses whose goal is to enhance diversity in the STEM fields at the PhD and faculty level by providing financial and professional development support to students from groups underrepresented in these fields. The summer prior, Blake conducted research supported by the UCLA Biomedical Research Minor Summer Scholarship. We had the opportunity to learn more about Blake’s research experience at UCLA:

1. How did you first get involved in your research project?

I started in the Spencer lab in spring quarter of my second year, which was my first year on campus due to COVID. The Spencer lab was one of at least 15 labs who I cold emailed when I was trying to get into research, and I was fortunate enough that they responded and had a spot open for me. Before joining the lab, I met with both Dr. Melissa Spencer and Robert, my graduate student mentor, and I talked to them about the lab’s research in gene therapies for muscular dystrophies as well as Robert’s project examining the immune response to systemic gene therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. I began to assist Robert with this project for my first summer in the Spencer lab, and after some interesting findings at the end of the summer I developed my own project that I am now conducting independently. My project examines the mechanisms of how macrophages can internalize AAV, the viral vector for gene therapies, at greater rates due to antibody or complement opsonization and its effects on the downstream immune response.

2. How would you describe your research experience at UCLA?

My research experience at UCLA has been very exciting, to say the least. I’ve been able to present my research at the Biomedical Research Minor Summer Symposium last summer, Undergraduate Research Week this year, and at the American Society for Gene and Cell Therapy (ASGCT) Annual Meeting in 2023. I’ve learned a lot about the unique challenges of the scientific process and the patience and determination that it takes to do research. Our lab has a lot of collaborators both on and off campus, so I’ve also been exposed to a wide variety of research in the field of gene therapy. In addition to the amazing opportunities and personal growth that I’ve experienced in my lab, I am also extremely lucky to be a part of Dr. Spencer’s group. We have an amazing group of undergraduates, lab technicians, and graduate students and Dr. Spencer is very supportive of all of us. She invites us over to her house for holidays and definitely knows how to party!

3. What is one piece of advice you have for other students thinking about getting involved in research?

One piece of advice I have for other students who want to do research is that joining a lab is not a permanent commitment. The beauty of being an undergraduate in a lab is that this isn’t your main job. If the lab you’re in isn’t working for you or there’s another lab that’s more closely aligned with your interests, then it’s ok to switch or even stop research. The most valuable part of the undergraduate research experience isn’t the presentations or publications that you may get out of your time in a lab, it’s understanding how research is done and seeing if you genuinely enjoy it or not.

4. Have you attended a conference before? If so, can you describe your experience on preparation, presenting, etc.?

I attended the 26th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Gene and Cell Therapy (ASGCT) at the convention center in downtown LA earlier this year, where I presented my research with a poster that I collaborated on with my graduate student mentor. The process of preparing the poster mainly consisted of a few meetings with Dr. Spencer and the two of us talking about how we should organize our figures and then bringing back a few rounds of drafts. The poster session itself was a very open format where posters were hung up in a huge main room, and conference attendees could walk around and talk to us if our research interested them. We were at the poster for about 2 hours and we both gave and received a lot of advice! Outside of the poster session, the conference itself was amazing – I was able to hear from scientists from all over the United States and the world, both in industry and academia, who were doing amazing research and had really exciting results. Additionally, I received monetary support to attend this conference from the Department of Neurology, which is the department that our lab is a part of, so the conference cost me $0.

5. What are your future career goals?

My goal is to attend a medical scientist training program to earn an MD/PhD after a gap year continuing with my research in the Spencer lab. As a physician scientist, I hope to specialize in hematology/oncology and start my own lab where I will conduct clinical and/or translational research at the intersection of cancer treatment and gene therapy.