From top left, clockwise: Benjamin Meza, Diana Medina-Yerena, Alejandro Quinones and Sabrina Stutling.
Courtesy of UCR Today

Four UCR undergraduates have won prestigious research fellowships in the 2018 Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), a branch of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Maryland. EXROP offers future STEM graduate students from groups underrepresented in the sciences an opportunity to get matched to a professor from another university and perform their own research project during the summer. HHMI provides a $5,000 stipend and housing arrangements. As a benefit from the program, participants are offered future funding opportunities, previews of advanced science courses and graduate school support. The award winners were nominated by Dr. Sue Wessler and Dr. Jim Burnette due to their performance in Dynamic Genome (BIOL 20), a research exposure opportunity for first-year students enrolled in Molecular Biology (BIOL 5A).   

Sabrina Stulting is a third-year biology major who currently works for Dr. Sean Cutler studying plant biology at UCR. She was one of about 20 students selected for the Sustaining Academic Leadership for STEM Achievement (HHMI-SALSA) summer scholars research program where she researched with Dr. Cutler, her current faculty mentor. Stulting studies drought tolerance in model plants like Arabidopsis using the latest technology of DNA splicing with CRISPR Cas9, a protein used to modify human DNA. Stulting hopes that her research will make important contributions to agriculture in California.

Stulting matched with another professor of plant biology at Caltech to further her investigation, though she has not been informed yet on who the professor is. These experiences inspired Stulting to pursue a doctorate degree in genetics. Through EXROP, Stulting wishes to prepare herself for graduate school both through the resources offered as well as the increased lab autonomy she will receive this summer to complete her own project.  

Stulting recalls the first time in her life when she knew she wanted a future in science during her AP Biology class in high school. As she entered UCR, her Dynamic Genome class sparked her interest in genetics and how fascinating and essential genetics are. She advises all to keep applying and learn the “benefit of the doubt” as she herself was hesitant about applying to such a competitive program.

Benjamin Meza is a second-year biology major and will be working in Dr. Michael G. Rosenfeld’s lab at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. His research involves certain molecular mechanisms caused by enhancer genes that increase the likelihood of proteins getting transcribed and causing disease. Meza’s research aims to develop therapies that target these enhancer genes to combat diseases like cancer, as well as memory loss and aging. Meza was assisting Burnette as a volunteer at an event known as “Sequencing to Success” hosted in conjunction with the Dynamic Genome program. Dr. Burnette approached him during his poster presentation and asked if he was interested in EXROP. Meza immediately said yes to the nomination opportunity to further his research. Meza’s interest in STEM field research originated when he was a child; his parents exposed him to a variety of different scientific topics through books and television shows that inspired his first passion in astronomy and meteorology. This led him to get involved in research and continue to challenge himself. Meza participated in the HHMI-SALSA Summer Scholars program in 2017 and hopes EXROP will open doors for a future career in research and allow him to do medical research with some of the top scientists in the country. Meza said, “this is an opportunity to be a part of research that I once as a child could only have watched on TV or read about in books.”

Diana Medina-Yerena is a second-year biology major currently doing research in plant biology at UCR with Dr. Linda Walling. Medina-Yerena works on characterizing the leucine aminopeptidase A (LAP-A), a protein in the wound response pathway of tomatoes that plays an indirect role in deterring herbivore feeding. Medina-Yerena also did her first research in the Dynamic Genome labs under Burnette.

Medina-Yerena’s future career goal is to become a biomedical scientist focusing on plant and human health. Medina-Yerena’s principal investigator (PI), Dr. Walling, presented this research opportunity when Medina-Yerena mentioned that she was unsure about becoming a researcher. Medina-Yerena and her PI deliberately discussed this opportunity before deciding to apply. “I would never have thought that a program like this would accept me. However, as a wise man once said, ‘You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take’ and so I went for it and I’m still shocked by the results,” Medina-Yerena remarked. She hopes this program will help her grow professionally while in a lab setting and will challenge her personal and academic goals.

Medina-Yerena’s first interest in science stems back to a day in her high school biology class. She was thrown off guard by the mechanism of a bacteriophage, a bacteria resembling a virus that spreads its “bad DNA” through a process called transduction. She remembers very vividly how the phage looked like an alien and the thought of transduction happening casually in the real world puzzled her understanding. Since then, Medina-Yerena’s curiosity continues to grow more and she is beginning to realize that becoming a researcher is the career path for her. She hopes to gain from this EXROP fellowship an opportunity where she can begin to learn and work with this research career path.

Alejandro Quinones is a third-year biology major and is currently working in Dr. Carolyn Rasmussen’s laboratory at UCR investigating division plane defects in plant cells. Quinones was selected by Dr. Wessler based on his two previous research experiences. His introduction to the laboratory began at his high school, California Academy of Mathematics and Science in Carson, California, where Quinones took biotechnology courses which inspired him to pursue science.

Quinones translated his high school lab experience to the Dynamic Genome laboratories as a freshman which served as his first exposure into research. Afterwards, he was selected for the HHMI-SALSA Summer Scholar program which was his first authentic research experience. He investigated the citrus genome within different citrus lines here at UCR. This previous summer, Quinones became a research intern at the United States Department of Agriculture under the Human Nutrition Research Center, where he investigated the effects of probiotics on infected animal models with respect to the immune response and physiological response in the gut.  Quinones found that obtaining results is one of the “most rewarding experiences” he had because he is the “first person in the world to examine them.”

This also made him realize the greater impact research can have on the wellness of a population, the importance of the application of research and how it can change many lives. Quinones is fortunate that EXROP will give him the opportunity to explore and pursue important research ideas and work with leaders in the research field. He sees EXROP as a chance to learn more by improving critical thinking and problem solving.