Bezawit Danna

Meet Bezawit Danna, a 4th year Biochemistry major and Biomedical Research minor who is currently involved 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. Her work was published recently in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, a journal published by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Additionally, Bezawit was involved in the UCLA Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences (PEERS), an intensive two year program committed to promoting academic excellence and professional development for students dedicated to careers in the life or physical sciences or mathematics. Through PEERS, she also participated in the CARE Fellows Program and Biomedical Sciences Enrichment Program (BISEP). We were able to ask Bezawit about her research experience at UCLA:

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

In my first year, I was introduced to research through the PEERS program, which is dedicated to fostering academic excellence, professional development, and integrating research into students’ experiences. My interest in mitochondrial metabolism research started when I learned about mitochondria, a small yet complex organelle, in my introduction to biology and biochemistry classes. Fortunately, I found out about Dr. Ajit Divakaruni’s lab in the Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology through an email announcement from the PEERS program, stating that he was seeking new students. The Divakaruni lab focuses on studying mitochondrial metabolism and bioenergetics in various metabolic diseases such as neurodegeneration, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes. After quickly sending my resume and cover letter, I secured an interview and began working in the lab during my sophomore year in the winter of 2022. I am still working in the same lab. Currently, I am working on a collaborative project with UC Berkeley, examining how lipotoxicity affects mitochondrial DNA synthesis in liver cells. I am excited about our collaboration that bridges mitochondrial studies from mitochondrial DNA to metabolism, extending its impact within the broader scientific community.

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

Joining the Divakaruni’s lab without prior research experience was an intimidating and daunting moment at first, but Dr. Ajit Divakaruni and the group have been very supportive mentors, teaching me numerous invaluable skills. They have provided guidance, encouragement, and laboratory skills throughout my research journey, starting with basics of using pipette and always being available to answer my questions. They have made a huge impact in my future path in pursuing research. I am also grateful to the UC LEADS program for allowing me to continue research, with continuous encouragement from Dr. David Gray. Through UC LEADS, I conducted research at UC Berkeley during summer of 2023 for two months. Overall, my research experience at UCLA has been incredibly rewarding, exciting, encouraging, and inspiring.

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

For students interested in research, my advice is to stay open-minded about opportunities and not be discouraged by a lack of prior research experience, as many undergraduates start their research journey without any prior experience. If you are interested in a research program, apply without hesitation. Similarly, when considering labs, take the initiative to reach out to various professors you are interested in and always have confidence in yourself.

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

I presented a poster on my research at the UC LEADS Research and Leadership Symposium at UC San Diego in April 2023. The preparation for the symposium involved deciding which figures to include on the poster and preparing the initial draft. I presented this draft during a lab meeting, received constructive feedback, and incorporated suggestions to edit the poster. Afterward, I presented the final draft at another lab meeting and received approval from my PI, Dr. Divakaruni. As it was my first poster presentation, I wasn’t sure what to expect. During the presentation, we hung our posters in designated spots and stood beside our poster, typically for about one hour and thirty minutes. Attendees including scientist doctors, graduate students, undergraduates approached, asked for presentations, and asked multiple questions. I really enjoyed this poster presentation, gaining valuable insights from doctors, graduate students, and UC LEADS scholars across UC campus.

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

The project I contributed on is titled “The BCKDK inhibitor BT2 is a chemical uncoupler that lowers mitochondrial ROS production and de novo lipogenesis”.

Publishing a research paper takes a while. First, you plan and organize the paper, deciding what data to include. Then, you submit it to journals, where it undergoes review. Often, reviewers ask for more experiments or changes. You then make those adjustments and send it back. This back-and-forth can take a couple of months. It’s a bit of a journey, but it ensures the quality of the research before it gets published. In the case of this paper, it took about five months from the initial submission to the final publication.

6. What are your future career goals?

My goal is to attend graduate school and pursue a PhD in Biomedical studies, with a specific focus on metabolic diseases, particularly neurodegenerative diseases and/or diabetes.