Jeff Qu

Meet Jeff Qu, a 4th year Biochemistry major and Structural Biology minor. Jeff is currently a member of 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. He was also a part of the 2022-2023 Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP) and 2021-2022 Undergraduate Research Fellows Program (URFP)–both programs that support students conducting a life science, physical science, or engineering research project with a UCLA faculty. We had the opportunity to interview Jeff about his research experience at UCLA.

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

I was curious about the research in biochemistry and how we obtained the understanding of vital life processes in molecular details as I took some classes in chemistry and biology. Then I looked at the URC and departmental website on research opportunities, then I joined the lab by emailing my current PI Dr. Jose Rodriguez. It was in the pandemic, so I picked up a computational project that allowed me to learn coding from the very beginning and understand how to utilize computational tools to probe molecules in silico. After I was on campus, I continued to work on computations as well as getting trained on experimental techniques. Then I begun my independent research project on using machine learning to predict how prone is the proteins to misfold and turned themselves into pathological aggregates known as amyloids.

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

I will say I am really lucky to join the lab with a welcoming atmosphere in undergraduate research as everyone is willing to offer much great advice in research and college life. Not only does my PI encourage me to explore new opportunities and research topics but also my graduate student mentors Samantha Zink and Niko Vlahakis are always there to help me with research training, suggestions for college life, and navigating my career goals. Throughout my experience in the lab, I was exposed to various dimensions of research in structural biology from computational analysis on molecules to experimental structure elucidation, from physics in microscopes to biology in functional assemblies and all of them are conveyed by my awesome mentors who are willing to help me out from the scratch. Other help from the programs at URC is also a key factor to prepare me to become more acquainted with scientific research and all of those people contributed to my meaningful research experience.

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

In my opinion, being active when thinking about research projects as well as communicating with others is really important to become a researcher. I feel like the shift of perspective from a student to a researcher is achieved through actively learning and asking questions to carry out research projects rather than simply conducting experiments. I gained many valuable insights from my peers and mentors when I had some questions about my research or recent publications. Most importantly, I became more excited about research as I gained more understanding about the project so active learning and engaging in conversations really encouraged me to explore more about the field.

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

I presented my work at the West Coast Structural Biology Workshop 2023, and it was a really nice experience. Before the presentation I was putting all my work together to a poster and I learned a lot about how to make the poster more compelling and readable from lab members. And we have to give a flash talk prior to the meeting so formatting all my research highlights to a 2-minute talk was also quite challenging. Anyways it is a really nice experience, my presentation was welcomed by many researchers from other universities, and I discussed and gained a lot of suggestions from other people and their research.

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

We are now currently working on drafting the paper, so it is another experience to put everything together into a story. We also established a website for our tool to the research community and it is pretty fun to build it with my mentor.

6. What are your future career goals?

I am thinking about getting a PhD degree after undergraduate, and I am planning to stick around generally with biophysics and biochemistry. After obtaining my doctoral degree, I plan to continue doing professional research in academia or industry.

Dr. William Hsu

Meet Dr. William Hsu, a professor in the Department of Radiological Sciences, Bioinformatics, and Bioengineering and a member of the Medical & Imaging Informatics group. He also served as a faculty author in the 2023 issue of the UCLA Undergraduate Science Journal (USJ).

We had the opportunity to ask Dr. Hsu about his experience mentoring undergraduate students:

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

I am a biomedical informaticist, someone who works with data, information, and knowledge to optimize their use for medical decision making. My lab works with clinical, imaging, and molecular data to diagnose cancers earlier. I have had a fantastic experience working with undergraduate trainees. While they come from different majors, such as computer science and computational and systems biology, they all share the same level of enthusiasm, motivation, and focus. It’s amazing how much they juggle, from coursework and other extracurricular activities, yet they come with passion and commitment to do research. I’m very grateful for them.

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

In any mentoring relationship, it’s important to establish expectations. Research is a commitment and takes time to make progress. You will need to do a deep dive into a subject area. That means a lot of background reading and preparatory work. In my area of informatics, trainees need to understand where the data comes from, what algorithms to use to analyze the data, how to process and interpret the results, and why the algorithms may or may not have worked. I find it’s important to take the time to develop a solid background and not rush this step. I also make sure that undergraduate trainees see themselves as equal members of the lab. That means participating in lab meetings whenever possible, presenting their work in front of the lab, and interacting with other lab members.

3. What is your experience working with undergraduate students who want to develop their scientific writing and publish?

I’m always so impressed with undergraduates who express a desire to write and publish. My advice would be to start by reading a lot of scientific writing. Scholarly articles may seem daunting to read at first, but learning how manuscripts are often organized, particularly in the field you are publishing, is helpful. I would also say that scientific writing is an iterative process, and it often takes a lot longer than you think, so plan ahead if you’re aiming to submit work to a venue like the Undergraduate Science Journal.

4. What is your outlook on team science and collaboration? What advice would you offer students as they navigate team science?

In a translational field like biomedical informatics, it’s so critical to be involved in a team and to collaborate with people with different backgrounds and expertise. For example, I collaborate very closely with radiologists and other clinical colleagues who are deeply knowledgeable about the challenges of practicing medicine that inform the types of problems that we tackle in my lab. Without their input, I would be running the risk of spending a lot of time developing an innovative solution, but the problem may be something that is never encountered in practice, or the solution may be too impractical to deploy.

5. How do you support students as they navigate alternative career trajectories in research?

There are many opportunities to apply skills picked up from doing research beyond being in a lab or staying in academia. Research teaches you creative problem-solving, teamwork, networking, and communication skills, to name a few. When trainees leave my lab, I want them to be prepared and supported to enter a career that they are most passionate about, whether in academic research or in other areas, using the skills they learned while doing research.

Emil Dominguez

Meet Emil Dominguez, a 3rd year biochemistry major with a minor in biomedical research. He is currently involved in the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, a two-year, NIH-funded, undergraduate honors program that seeks to increase the number of biomedical scientists from diverse backgrounds that significantly impact health-related research. Emil was also a winner of the Best Poster award at the 2023 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS) and a recipient of the 2023-2024 UCLA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Student Leadership Award. We had the opportunity to interview Emil about his research experience at UCLA:

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

My research journey took an unconventional route, beginning in community college before being accepted to UCLA. While in community college, I was fortunate to be accepted into the UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program Richard Morgan Undergraduate Fellowship, a life-changing experience. That summer, I joined Dr. Keriann M. Backus’s laboratory, where I gained a foundation in chemical biology. It was exciting to synthesize a small molecule and test its biological properties in cells. When I transferred to UCLA later that fall, I was thrilled to be invited to pursue additional projects in the Backus laboratory. I’ve been deeply involved in research ever since.

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

My research experience at UCLA has been incredibly enriching. Each week, I look forward to the chemistry and biochemistry department seminars. From organic and inorganic chemistry to biochemistry and chemical biology, I’ve been exposed to so many diverse research fields and had the opportunity to expand my scientific knowledge. Hearing from Nobel laureates and the world’s leading researchers at events like the Sigman Symposium and Glenn T. Seaborg Symposium has been inspiring. I feel so lucky to be a part of this amazing research community with incredible mentors like Dr. Backus, Dr. Carlos Portera-Cailliau, and Dr. Tama Hasson, to name a few.

Also, thanks to Dr. Gina Poe, Dr. Megan McEvoy, and Larone Ellison, I’ve had the opportunity to expand my horizons in the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. Their guidance and support have allowed me to undertake independent and sustained research experiences at UCLA and abroad. Through MARC’s support, I participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Internship at the University of Pennsylvania and, more recently, the Vanderbilt Undergraduate MSTP fellowship, which I will attend in the summer of 2024.

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

My biggest tip is to start as early as possible, especially if you’re a transfer. Don’t be discouraged by how challenging it might be to understand complex concepts during lab meetings. Research is a constant learning journey; with each lab meeting, your understanding will deepen. Gradually, complex topics will become clearer, and you’ll start coming up with your own ideas and contributions.

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

I recently attended the 2023 ABRCMS conference, where I presented research I conducted in Dr. Dirk Trauner’s laboratory through the Summer Undergraduate Internship Program at the University of Pennsylvania. I worked to develop a photoswitchable version of cholesterol in the hopes that its incorporation into a phospholipid membrane, such as in a liposome, would afford us optical control over its permeability and, thus, the delivery of its contents. Much of my preparation began as soon as I landed in Philadelphia. I was given my own lab space and worked to set it up from scratch, including assembling a schlenk line used for air-free chemistry and preparing personal stock solutions and supplies. I happily worked late into the night and sometimes into the early morning hours and was completely immersed in my project. At the end of my summer, I gave a detailed PowerPoint research update during the weekly Trauner group meeting. Fielding questions and getting feedback and ideas for future experiments from labmates and Dirk was great preparation for presenting at ABRCMS.

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

I contributed to a project currently under review at Nature Chemical Biology, which has been deposited into the bioRxiv.

The publication process has helped me develop a big-picture understanding of our research project. I learned how to craft a narrative around our findings, proposing experiments that contribute to a cohesive story. It also forced me to think critically about project design and how to select and propose impactful experiments.

6. What are your future career goals?

I am driven to become a physician-scientist and address biomedical research questions impacting communities of color. My ultimate goal is to lead research as a principal investigator, where I can leverage my scientific expertise and clinical experience to find solutions that directly address these disparities.

Alex Wu

Meet Alex Wu, a 4th year Design | Media Arts and Neuroscience double major. Alex 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 2023 summer, he was a part of the Amgen Scholars Program, a national program for students committed to pursuing a career in biomedical research. He is also a 2023-2024 UCLA Neuroscience Scheibel Scholar. We were able to ask Alex about his research experience at UCLA:

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

Coming into UCLA I had an idea of what I hoped to research—I liked neuroscience and was interested in understanding how our brain and behavior worked. I also knew that I wanted to approach such questions from computationally. I cold emailed a list of computational neuroscience labs and am grateful that Dr. Masmanidis and his lab was willing to take on and mentor me as an undergraduate. Getting to the project I am working on now was a lot of learning on the job. I learned bits and pieces of immunohistochemical imaging, mice handling, and experimental design from what the graduate students and post-docs needed help with on their projects. All of that prepared me for the Parkinson’s Disease mice gait model project that I am researching now.

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

My research experience as a part of the Masmanidis Lab has been one of my most meaningful experiences at UCLA because of how it combines all of my neuroscience knowledge and skills together. There has been a lot of patience involved when experiments need to be revised or inconclusive results appear. But when all of my procedures start to come together and I start to see trends in my data, it makes the incremental nature of being in a lab worth it. I am also grateful for the research community I have met at UCLA; being a part of the i2URP program, the Amgen Scholars program, and the neuroscience community at UCLA is something I will treasure even after graduation.

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

Research is an unpredictable and patient process. I would try to learn to get comfortable with the uncomfortable reality that nothing about being at the forefront of science is set in stone. Even with the most comprehensive literature search or up-to-date data, it is not easy to predict if an experiment will turn out the way you imagined or if an opportunity will go your way. However, that is okay and everyone feels that way! Being willing to take a leap of faith to find a mentor or pursue a lead even if you aren’t fully confident you are ready can be chances to learn about the process and yourself. Trust that you are making the most informed decision you can and that things will slowly sort themselves out.

4. Have you had your work published? Can you talk about what that process is like?

I have helped with the publications of some of the graduate students and post-docs in the lab, including a paper that is currently in pre-print. It was interesting to see how our work is far from over even after finishing our first experiments. Rather, following a submission, it is an ongoing process of revisions and troubleshooting based on the feedback we get.

5. What are your future career goals?

Following graduation I intend to work in clinical research, whether at UCLA or elsewhere, while applying to MD/PhD programs. As a career I hope to work with applications of neurotechnologies for clinical situations, particularly in regards to neurodegenerative disorders, as a physician scientist.

Kevin Alfaro

Meet Kevin Alfaro, a 4th year Physics major with a background in Astronomy. He 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. Additionally, Kevin 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. We had the opportunity to interview Kevin about his research experience at UCLA:

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

I first got involved in research in the summer after my second year. I was in UCLA’s Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS). Through them, I learned about a program called University of California Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees (UC LEADS), which is a research fellowship that prepares undergraduates from underprivileged backgrounds to kickstart their research careers. They provide funding and support for you to get research experience and prepare for graduate school. From there, I contacted professors whose research I was interested in and ended up working with Professor Tuan Do. My current project involves using convolutional neural networks for photometric redshift estimation of galaxies.

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

My research experience at UCLA has been very fruitful and gratifying. I have a very supportive lab environment and never feel scared to ask for help. I enjoy the work I’m doing and getting to share it during presentations and conferences. I’ve gained a deeper knowledge of several topics I’m interested in such as machine learning and cosmology. And have also learned how to solve problems more creatively and in collaboration with several people. It’s also given me a sense of what to look forward to in graduate school.

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

My main piece of advice for students thinking about getting involved in research is to engage with it at their own pace. There have been several times when I burnt myself out from doing too much. It’s okay to slow things down and accept that setbacks are commonplace. Doing so also helps you better understand your project, and taking breaks can give you time to sit back and think about your work differently. There have been several times when I spent way too long on a problem, only to find a solution for it after stepping back and being in a more relaxed state of mind. At the end of the day, working too much will not only degrade one’s work, but it will also degrade the self.

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

I attended and presented at the 2023 UC LEADS symposium. Preparing for a conference is very much like preparing for a presentation in class. You have to make sure your information is easily digestible and concise. As well as be ready to anticipate any questions you can see people asking during your presentation. Most conferences have you present a poster and the making of the poster is usually what’s new to students during their first conference. As long as all of your information is concise and your figures are easy to decipher, you can freely design it as much or as little as you like. Admittedly, making a poster is a considerable endeavor and I would recommend you ask your labmates to provide feedback. You can even present it in front of them to rehearse. My biggest piece of advice would be to make a slideshow first, then move all of the information onto the poster format later. Focus on the content first, then turn your attention to the presentation of said information. Once you actually present, it’s also okay to not know the answer to questions you get asked. No one expects you to know everything there is to know about your subfield.

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

My work is in the process of getting submitted or being written up. I’m a coauthor on journal submissions but a first-author on conference papers. Both are relatively similar. Typically, you’d produce a manuscript, which is like a combination of a lab report and a literature review. You put your original work in and contextualize its value to the field. You’d submit it to a journal or conference and go through a peer review process where people with relevant experience will review your paper. If your paper gets accepted, you will typically get comments from the reviewers on corrections you can make to improve the work. The submission and review process can take time so don’t feel bad because the experience can be nerve-wracking.

6. What are your future career goals?

After getting my bachelor’s degree, I am going to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics. I ultimately want to go through graduate school and see if I would enjoy being a professor. If not, I can definitely see myself working in private research or the technology industry.

2024 CAMP Undergraduate Research Symposium

The Louis Stokes California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) is an NSF-funded program shared across nine UC campuses (Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Diego, Riverside, and Merced). Its goal is to enhance diversity in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields at the PhD and faculty level by providing financial and professional development support to students from groups underrepresented in these fields.

The CAMP Symposium showcases undergraduate STEM research in from all nine UC campuses in the alliance. CAMP students who are supported by NSF-funded grants present the research they have performed under the guidance of a faculty mentor. The 2024 Symposium was held on February 3, 2024 at UC Riverside. Attendees from UCLA were led by Dr. Jorge Avila, the CAMP Administrative Director at UCLA. Several students were recognized with awards and Abigail Gutierrez, a 2022-2023 UCLA CAMP Scholar and NIH-funded Postbaccalaureate Researcher in the Lindsay De Biase lab, served as an Alumni Panelist.

Special Merit Award in Life Sciences

Ariana Infante

Jordi Martinez

Blake Williams

Special Merit Award in Physical Sciences and Engineering

Angel Lima Hernandez

Honorable Mention in Life Sciences

Albert Macias

Pictured in left group photo from left to right, top to bottom: Blake Williams, Albert Macias, Jordi Martinez, Angel Lima Hernandez, Ariana Infante
Pictured in right group photo from left to right, top to bottom: Albert Macias, Jesus Velazquez, Abigail Gutierrez, Dr. Jorge Avila, Ariana Infante, Jordi Martinez, Blake Williams, Angel Lima Hernandez
Pictured in individual poster photos from left to right, top to bottom: Jordi Martinez, Ariana Infante, Albert Macias, Blake Williams, Angel Lima Hernandez, Jesus Velazquez