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Summer Scholars Learn by Doing

August 12, 2013
41 UC Merced undergraduates participate in sponsored research programs


UC Merced has made a name for itself by giving undergraduates the opportunity to engage in research early in their academic careers. Nothing showcases that commitment better than the campus’s collaborative summer research program, which culminated last week with a symposium where they presented on their research and exhibited posters of their work as well.

This summer, 41 students have been conducting research with world-class faculty, thanks to sponsorships from seven different programs. According to Jesus Cisneros, director for undergraduate research programs, these student scholars represent an investment in the future.

“We are coaching these students to present their research at competitive regional and national conferences, in addition to helping them to develop skills to prepare them for the rigors of graduate school and professional careers,” he said.

For students like Laura Jalpa, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Hispanic-Serving Institution Scholar from East Palo Alto, this program has given her confidence in her choice of studies and plans for the future.

“This entire summer has been confirmation that I am on the right path,” said the earth systems sciences major. “I came to UC Merced thinking I had an interest in soil science; now I know that’s the field for me.”

It doesn’t hurt that she’s been able to work with a leading mind in the field, Professor Asmeret Berhe.

“Professor Berhe is a prestigious researcher, who I had read about long before I came to UC Merced,” Jalpa said. “I remember thinking that if I came here, I might be able to take a class from her. Now I’m working in her lab and collecting samples in the Sierra Nevada.”

PG&E Engineering Summer Scholars Program participant Enrique Daza is no stranger to research.

The bioengineering senior from San Mateo has worked in various labs both at UC Merced and abroad, but this summer’s experience in the lab of Jing Xu has opened his eyes to the emerging world of DNA origami. DNA origami involves folding a single strand of DNA, attaching shorter strands in various places to create shapes or scaffolds as the strands bind together. For his research this summer, Daza designed the DNA scaffold for experiments on motor proteins and their movements.

“What is different for me this time in the lab is my ability to conduct my own independent research,” he said. “I have the guidance from my advisor but also the freedom to teach myself how to develop my own experiment protocol.”

UC LEADS Scholar Emmanuel Villanueva, a junior psychology major from Fresno, is another research veteran. Since enrolling at UC Merced, he’s worked in psychology and cognitive science labs with renown faculty such as Anna Song, David Noelle and Teenie Matlock

The UC LEADS program lasts for two years with Villanueva conducting research here this summer and spending next summer at a different campus. With faculty mentor Jitske Tiemensma, he began a literature review on the effects of emotions on the immune system and found himself amazed at the wealth of knowledge available and that which is still unknown.

“The amount of literature available on any given topic is infinite; you can search and search, and the results never end,” he said. “But in the world of research, there is always more to be done. There is always something that was overlooked or requires replication.”

Like all of the summer research scholars, Villanueva is grateful for the funding he’s received but also for the invaluable experience of being part of the big picture that academic research represents.

“When I pursue graduate school, I will not see myself as one among many, but as part of a group of first-generation students who are facilitating the path for those who come after us.”

In addition to the programs mentioned, UC Merced’s summer research program includes scholars from CAMP, UPSTaRT, APS Scholars and Pre-Health Scholars.