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.

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

2023 ABRCMS Winners

For over 20 years, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS) has been the go-to conference for historically excluded students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The 2023 ABRCMS was held in Phoenix, Arizona from November 15-19, and an unprecedented number of UCLA students were recognized. A total of fifteen students from UCLA won awards for their presentations.

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Emil Dominguez, Justin Amakor, Lianne Alson, Kelechi Onwuzurike, Austin Aguirre, Derick Diaz, Jennifer Gonzalez, Amelia Rodolf

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Miguel Medina Lopez

Cancer Biology

Derick Diaz

Mattias de los Rios Rogers

Cell Biology

Justin Amakor

Chemistry

Emil Dominguez

Lianne Alson

Microbiology

Austin Aguirre

Neuroscience

Chukwuebuka Oragwam

Jennifer Gonzalez

Gabriela Vilchez

Sophia Rueda

Engineering, Physics, and Mathematics

Adriann Josef Brodeth

Kelechi Onwuzurike

Ava Asmani

Amelia Rodolf

Melody Haratian

Meet Melody Haratian, a 4th year Psychobiology major. Melody 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. She was also a part of the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP) during the 2022-2023 academic year, a three-quarter scholarship program that supports students who are conducting a life science, physical science, or engineering research project with a UCLA faculty. We had the chance to speak to Melody about her research experience at UCLA:

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

Although my first year at UCLA was entirely online, there was news that we would be back in-person for the fall of my second year. Thus, the summer after my first year I began emailing different labs with research topics that I was interested in. Some of the labs I emailed offered me an interview, and from there we saw whether or not I would be a good fit for their lab! The interview process mostly checked for what I would be interested in studying in their lab, my time commitment, and my past experiences with laboratory techniques.

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

My research experience at UCLA has been extremely rewarding. Primarily, I have been able to experience what it’s like to be a scientist and learn about different laboratory techniques like immunohistostaining, 3D-reconstruction, and imaging. Many of my courses at UCLA do not cover these laboratory techniques, so it’s nice to be able to experience these at a lab where I’m able to get feedback and support from my lab team. Next, I’m thankful to have met so many wonderful people that I have many things in common with at my lab. All of us in the lab have a passion for discovery and research, which makes it easy to make friends and meet new people. Finally, working at a lab has been a great way for me to understand how to use the scientific method and learn about the trial and error involved in research.

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

I would encourage students to get involved with research as soon as they can. Research is truly a wonderful experience to have at UCLA and there’s so many amazing labs that you can join. You don’t need prior research/lab experience to join a lab, so don’t let that limit you. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to different professors who you’re interested in working with- if they have spots open I’m sure they’d be happy to have you!

4. What are your future career goals?

My dream is to join an MD/PhD program in Neuroscience (ideally behavioral Neuroscience). Furthermore, I would like to pursue research after graduating and engage in Neuroscience research in different topics.

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.

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.