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Two Undergraduate Stars Earn Unique Summer Opportunities

May 9, 2022
Estefania Cuevas-Zepeda and Zachary Mauri
Estefania Cuevas-Zepeda and Zachary Mauri

Two undergraduate students who will receive their bachelor’s degrees later this month have been selected for a unique opportunity to attend a meeting of some of the greatest minds in the world.

Professor Aurora Pribram-Jones, with the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, nominated undergraduates Estefania Cuevas-Zepeda and Zachary Mauri to travel to Lindau, Germany, at the end of June for the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Both students, along with recent Ph.D. alum Ali AbouTaka, were invited to attend, but only Mauri will make the trip overseas.

Over five days, about 600 undergraduates, Ph.D. students and post-doctoral researchers from 91 countries will meet and engage with 35 chemistry Nobel laureates, and attend seminars, social events and outings.

To participate in the annual meeting, each student must pass a multi-step application and selection process which, for UC students involves a panel of UC system-wide evaluators.

After Lindau, Mauri, a physics major from Antioch who worked on computational quantum chemistry research in Pribram-Jones’ chemistry lab, is heading off to Stanford University in the fall to start work on his Ph.D.

“I work at the intersection of chemistry and physics, and there’s a name for that — materials science,” Mauri said. “It’s a combination of people from engineering, physics and chemistry backgrounds.”

He said undergrads should consider starting research as early in their college careers as possible because it’s interesting, helps put classroom lessons into context, and it’s good to have a faculty or grad student mentor who can write substantive letters of recommendation for graduate school or other paths students choose after completing their bachelor’s degrees.

Unlike Mauri, Cuevas-Zepeda cannot attend the Lindau meeting because she has accepted a summer internship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. She will spend her time there as a course assistant for the physiology class in the marine biology lab.

Because she's not officially a graduate student yet, she can't be in the course.

“By working as a course assistant, I get exposed to the research and most of the same things as the graduate students,” Cuevas-Zepeda said. “I'll be sitting in on the morning lectures with faculty and learning about their cool, interesting research. It's a really good opportunity to be exposed to so many different types of research and so many different people from different backgrounds.”

The chemistry student, originally from Merced, will leave for her Ph.D. program in biophysical sciences at the University of Chicago after her summer at Woods Hole.

She said she is sorry to miss the meeting in Germany but felt this summer internship would help her prepare for graduate school.

Cuevas-Zepeda and Mauri both said they might be interested in going into academia after graduate school but are also open to other possibilities.

They are just two of this year’s graduating Bobcats with bright futures ahead of them.

Pribram-Jones said she was pleased to nominate both students for the Nobel Laureate meeting because it’s a unique opportunity.

“They are both exceptional chemistry students, and they each represent different takes on what it means to be interdisciplinary,” she said. “Zach is an exuberant physics major who applies his physics training to chemical problems, while Steph is a stellar chemistry major who lights up when exploring the interfaces between chemistry, biology and physics.

“I had no doubt they would be excellent representatives of UC Merced, as each of them cares deeply about our community and has worked hard to find their places in it,” Pribram-Jones said. “They are both off to phenomenal Ph.D. programs next year. I'll miss them each deeply, but I am so proud of their accomplishments and who they are as people.”