Dr. Anthony Covarrubias

Meet Dr. Anthony Covarrubias, a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. His mentorship helped Albert Macias, a 4th year UCLA Biochemistry major, secure a CAMP ThermoFisher Award to support their work on immunosenescent NAD metabolism. CAMP is an NSF-LSAMP program at UCLA, aimed at enhancing diversity in STEM at the PhD and Faculty levels. Learn more about CAMP here: UCLA NSF-CAMP.

We had the opportunity to ask Dr. Covarrubias about what it’s like to mentor undergraduate students in the lab:

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

My first experience with undergraduate research was when I was an undergraduate at UCLA myself, many years ago. I worked as a lab technician and was inspired to pursue a Phd in science. At the time, I was taught lab techniques and technical skills, but the details of the scientific goals we were pursuing were not always clear to me. Thus, as a PI I strive to make sure that in addition to technical skills, undergraduate researches also gain a good understanding of the broader mission of the lab and the research project that they are contributing to.

Since joining UCLA as an assistant professor, I have taken on multiple undergraduate students as lab members and mentees.

2. What are your most effective approaches to promote undergraduate research success?

Ensuring the success of the undergraduates’ research is a top priority for me and my lab. Emphasizing mentorship is of utmost importance, particularly when students first join the lab and when they face critical milestones in their undergraduate career. It is through this mentorship that I aim to help students formulate clear goals and then guide them on steps towards reaching those goals. Furthermore, I make sure to include undergraduate students in everything involving the essence of the lab. For example, I expect them to be contributing participants of every lab meeting and journal clubs.

3. What resources at UCLA have been the most beneficial to including undergraduates in your research?

The undergraduate research center at UCLA has numerous resources to assist undergraduates who are pursuing research. Among these are the honors research program and the summer programs. As a relatively young lab, it is particularly helpful when undergraduates are able to secure resources to pursue research in the form of fellowships or grants. There are many options for talented students to pursue if they are dedicated to the search and application process.

4. What should undergraduates consider before they begin their research journey?

Before they begin their research journey, undergraduates should first make sure they have formulated an end goal. That goal could be obtaining a Phd in a particular field, applying to medical school, or having in mind whether they want to pursue a career in academia or in industry. I recognize that the end goal could be a moving target or could change as time goes on. However, I find that it is important for students to have clarity and reasoning behind their desire to initiate a research journey. Doing so helps students focus on seeking the specific type of experience or research that would be most beneficial to reaching that end goal. Beyond this, students should recognize that the research journey can be very rewarding but quite long, and thus they should have the passion and enthusiasm needed to reach the end of the road.

5. How do you support students as they navigate different career trajectories in science?

I primarily support students and help them prepare for a career in science by ensuring that they build a very strong foundation in both research and technical skills. No matter where their career takes them, my goal is to give them the most robust launching pad that I can by challenging them to be their best. With each individual student, I aim to help them achieve their utmost potential in my lab by setting big goals and by encouraging them to overcome any difficult challenges. With this background, I know my students will be prepared for any future career, whether it is in the field of science or in something entirely different.

Cindy Ly

Meet Cindy Ly, a 4th year Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics (MIMG) major. Cindy is currently involved in the Integrated and Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Program (i2URP), a two-year academic development program that prepares juniors and seniors for graduate studies and careers in biomedical research by improving their comprehension of scientific literature and sharpening their presentation skills. During the 2022-2023 academic year, she was a part of the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP), a three-quarter scholarship program that supports students who are conducting a life science, physical science, or engineering research project with a UCLA faculty. Cindy also participated in the 2022 URC-Sciences Summer Program, the 2021-2022 CARE Fellows Program, and the 2021 Biomedical Sciences Enrichment Program (BISEP). Additionally, Cindy is involved in Path 2, the research-intensive pathway for her major. We had the opportunity to ask Cindy about her research experience at UCLA:

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

I had the opportunity to participate in the Biomedical Sciences Enrichment Program (BISEP) the summer between my freshman and sophomore year since I was in the PEERS program as a freshman. Although I didn’t get to experience the whole program since it was during the Covid-19 pandemic, this program helped connect participants to various research labs on campus. I was able to connect with the lab that I am currently in, the Hallem Lab, through this program. After meeting with the PI, Dr. Hallem, and my current post-doc mentor, Dr. Ruhi Patel, I joined the lab at the beginning of my sophomore year and have been part of this lab as an undergraduate researcher for the past three years.

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

My research experience at UCLA has been amazing! Everyone in the Hallem lab is incredibly supportive and willing to answer any questions I have, whether it be about research or career advice. Additionally, UCLA has provided me with so many opportunities to grow and develop myself as an undergraduate researcher. One of the most impactful experiences I had was through the Integrated and Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Program (i2URP). It is a small cohort research program where students present their research and participate in student-led journal clubs every week. From this experience, I am able to improve my scientific literature analysis and presentation skills.

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

One piece of advice I have is to take advantage of the many research opportunities that UCLA has and apply for research programs, even if you’re unsure about getting accepted. Many students are hesitant to apply for these programs because they are not confident in their experience or skills as a researcher. Keep in mind that they know that we are undergraduates and are still learning—as long as you have the passion and drive to pursue research, I highly recommend applying!

4. What are your future career goals?

After I graduate, I will take a gap year but I am planning on pursuing medical school. In the future, I would like to work at an academic hospital and also participate in research on the side.

Justin Purnomo

Meet Justin Purnomo, a 3rd year Biochemistry major participating in the UC Leadership Excellence Through Advanced Degrees (UC LEADS) Program. UC LEADS provides undergraduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with educational experiences that prepare them to assume positions of leadership in academia, industry, government, and public service following the completion of a doctoral degree. We had the opportunity to ask Justin about his research experience at UCLA:

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

I joined the Neuhauser Group at the end of my first year, which was the result of countless cold emails to numerous chemistry faculty members. I did not know what to expect when Dr. Daniel Neuhauser accepted me into his theoretical chemistry-focused lab, but I am so thankful for the opportunity that I received. In less than a year, I was able to learn how to program in Fortran and the fundamentals of quantum chemistry, both of which are skills the average biochemistry student would not acquire through their undergraduate coursework.

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

I would describe my research experience as both unexpected and fulfilling. As a naive first year at the time, I did not know what to expect going into research. Initially, my goal was to use this research experience to bolster my resume when applying to medical school. However, I grew to love the research and academic environment to the point that I decided to change career goals from medicine to academia. I also discovered my passion for teaching during my time at UCLA, and I realized that I would have something to offer academically by merging my interests in theoretical chemistry and biochemistry.

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

Take initiative! Do your own research on the faculty that interests you, and take the time to understand what kind of work they are doing. If it’s difficult to understand certain topics, I would encourage you to reach out to either the faculty of interest, or even some of the graduate students in the lab. 

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

Yes, I’ve attended a couple conferences. My most recent one was the SoCal TheoChem Symposium 2023, which was hosted at UCLA in October. Though I had prior experience presenting in a conference, this was the first time in which the general audience consisted of graduate students and faculty. As a biochemistry major with limited experience in theoretical chemistry, I was initially nervous about presenting in front of people more qualified than me. However, those who came to visit my poster made me feel welcome by listening attentively and offering insightful feedback. I realized that I had something to offer with my research, and that more importantly, that the academic community was nurturing. Overall, I would say that I grew immensely as a scientist and a presenter through this experience. 

5. Have you had your work published? Can you talk about what that process was like?

I’ve had my work published with the UCLA Undergraduate Science Journal (USJ), which is a student-run organization that helps facilitate the peer review and publication process for undergraduates looking to publish their work. I would strongly recommend making the most of this opportunity, as it’s a good way for beginner-researchers to secure a first publication. The UCLA USJ scaffolds the writing of the manuscript in a manner designed not to overwhelm, and walks with students every step of the way to ensure a smooth publication process. I personally found the process to be enjoyable and rewarding, and I am already looking forward to reading the research papers published in next year’s UCLA USJ!

6. What are your future career goals?

I plan to pursue a PhD in chemical biology, where I hope to leverage my theoretical chemistry background to solve biological problems. I am particularly interested in using computational tools to better understand protein structure and biological processes. After obtaining my PhD, I would like to become an instructional university professor focusing on the intersection of biochemistry and molecular biophysics.