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.