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.