January 2018 Newsletter: Student Researchers Honored at Biomedical Conference

Undergraduate students Mulatwa Haile, left, and Nebat Ali, received awards for their research presentations at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in November. (Photo: James Tensuan, ’15 Journalism)

By Melissa Anderson

Mulatwa Haile and Nebat Ali have several years of research experience between them—and recently received an award for presentations of their work at a national conference—though they are both still in their junior year as undergraduates at San Jose State University.

The students applied to be part of programs on campus that aim to give research opportunities to undergraduate, underrepresented, students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Haile, a biological sciences student with a concentration in systems physiology who is minoring in chemistry and also hopes to complete an African American Studies minor, applied for the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program. Ali, a biological sciences student with a concentration in microbiology, started out with the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and worked wi Dr. Miri VanHoven.

“I got accepted to (Dr.) Katherine Wilkinson’s lab in the biological sciences department,” Haile said. “Ever since then I have developed my love of science and research.”

She noted that as an undergraduate it is challenging to balance working in a lab where she can learn techniques and make connections that will benefit her in the future while also finding the time to study. One of the most valuable lessons she learned is time management and trouble shooting. The students are now involved in Maximizing Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Training in Academic Research (MARC U-STAR) program.

“Both the programs have made the gap between me and my ambition smaller, whether that be financially by offering support or by providing an oasis of information,” Haile said, humbly adding, “I am extremely grateful for the diversity programs. They have given the not-so-extraordinary-me an opportunity to do extraordinary things.”

Ali agreed that the research experience has helped her in many aspects of her educational career, including applying concepts from class to the experiments with which she is involved.

“These programs really helped guide me and provide a network of students and professors to connect with,” she said. “These programs provide an amazing support system for us minority students that bridges the gap between undergraduate and graduate school.”

Last fall, they traveled to the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in Phoenix, Arizona, where they connected with more than 2,000 like-minded students to present research findings. The SJSU cohort included 25 students who presented 16 posters and conducted two talks, with the support of faculty members Dr. Karen Singmaster, Dr. Alberto Rascon, Dr. Cleber Ouverney and Wilkinson.

Haile presented her research on the effects of obesity on spinal cord excitability and Ali presented work on how nematodes evolved to avoid Streptomyces bacteria. The two were among the select students from across the nation to receive awards for their presentations.

“I have attended regional professional conferences, but not one that was so large,” Ali said. “ABRCMS was my first national conference. It was an incredible learning experience and everything from the speakers to the exhibitors weregreat.”

Ali noted that historically white males have dominated the field of science.
“Going to ABRCMS and seeing the diversity and all the minorities represented there made me think of all the potential that lies within those that are underrepresented in the fields of STEM,” she said. “Having these programs for underrepresented students is one crucial step in breaking the barriers that restrict us from attaining our full potential.”

In addition to RISE, LSAMP and MARC, the university has other programs that support research opportunities for undergraduate students who are underrepresented in STEM fields. These include the McNair Scholars Program, Research by Undergraduates Using Molecular Biology Applications (RUMBA) and S-STEM. The programs are funded through a variety of federal grants and many students who have participated have gone on to complete doctoral programs.

“The two awards confirm that the research taking place on our campus is meaningful and that our students are as competitive as those at top research institutions in the nation,” Ouverney said.

SJSU students awarded at biomedical conference

San Jose State students and faculty attended the Association of Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle in November.

San Jose State students and faculty attended the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle in November.

San Jose State students and faculty attended the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle Nov. 11-14, where five SJSU students received awards.

Fauna Yarza, a spring 2015 transfer student, received an award for her microbiology poster presentation. The trip was her first time to a national conference and her first time to give a poster presentation about her research.

“It gave me confidence in myself as a scientific communicator,” said Yarza, ’17 biological sciences with a microbiology concentration.

Yarza is part of the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program that promotes research opportunities for underrepresented minorities. Yarza’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and her mother has only a grade-school education.

“All she asked of me growing up was to get a college degree,” Yarza said.

Working with Assistant Professor Elizabeth Skovran, Yarza and other students are researching bacteria that appear to be able to take in rare earth elements that could be beneficial in recycling metals from electronics.

“I’d like to go for my Ph.D so research experience is crucial,” Yarza said.

Yarza  said through the RISE program “I get paid to do research.”

“Without it, I would need to take out more loans or get a part-time job,” she said. “I’m not sure I could balance classes, work and research.”

Yarza said the program has also given her access to mentors with whom she would not have had the chance to interact, including Professor Karen Singmaster who is the program director for SJSU’s RISE.

Students from the Maximizing Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (MARC-USTAR) program, Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, and the College of Science Research and Teaching Scholars (CoSRaTs) program also attended the conference. The programs are funded by federal grant. Singmaster is the SJSU program coordinator for LSAMP and program director of CosRaTs. Dr. Leslee Parr is the director of MARC-USTAR.

MARC students Jessica Ballin and Rebecca Sandoval, both psychology majors, presented research performed during the summer at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign and Universty of Michigan, respectively. Awardees from the RISE program presented work done with faculty at SJSU.  In addition to Yarza, Elvia Silva, a biological sciences student working with Dr. Tzvia Abramson and Adrian Riives, a chemistry student working with  Dr. Gilles Muller, were also recognized with an award.

Students hold up the awards they received for research presentations.

Students hold up the awards they received for research presentations.