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A Dream Summer of Research Awaits for Pair of UCR Undergrads

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By Ross French

A pair of University of California, Riverside undergraduates will each be spending a large portion of their summer vacations doing research in labs on the other side of the country. And they couldn’t be more thrilled about the opportunity. Junior neuroscience major Victoria Senechal of Santa Ana and sophomore biochemistry major Sang Nguyen of Alhambra, were two of 61 students selected to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), which provides talented undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds with summer research experiences in the labs of HHMI investigators and professors. Students may also present their research in a poster session and network with peers at the HHMI headquarters. The program runs from early June through August.

Past UCR recipients of the award include Donald Richards in 2011, twins Colette and Connie Martin in 2010, Homer Vasquez in 2009, Carlos Mejia in 2008 and Markeith Pilot in 2007.

“It speaks well for our campus that we have had this kind of track record with HHMI and EXROP,” said Richard Cardullo, dean of the Life Sciences division in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS). Cardullo, along with UCR Distinguished Professor of Genetics and HHMI fellow Sue Wessler oversaw the selection process that culled the pool of a dozen candidates to the final two nominees.

“We were looking at a number of different factors,” Cardullo said. “Underserved populations who have an interesting story to tell, who are doing well academically and who have research experience.”

After being selected, Nguyen and Senechal submitted their top choices of the HHMI fellows they hoped to work with. Both were assigned to their top choices: Senechal with Dr. Richard Huganir’s lab at John’s Hopkins University, and Nguyen with Dr. George Daley at Children’s Hospital Boston, the pediatric teaching hospital of Harvard University.

“These are two very prominent biomedical research institutions.” Cardullo said. “This experience is going to broaden their expertise and their view of the discipline. It is going to be part of their formative development as research scientists.”

“The EXROP experience will help me towards my goal of becoming a professional biomedical research scientist,” Senechal said, adding “I wish to pursue a dual career where I can help people in the present while seeking better solutions for the future.”

For Nguyen, who is the first in his family to go to college in the United States, the honor of being selected for EXROP is compounded by the fact that he is a sophomore. Of the 61 students selected for the program just 21 were sophomores.

“That makes it more special,” Nguyen said. “It is an honor to have been selected for this award.”

If Senechal and Nguyen want some insight on what to expect during their summer programs, they need only ask Richards, who worked with Dr. Leslie Leinwand in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the summer of 2011. The senior biology major from nearby Ontario described the experience doing gene sequencing on the heart of a Burmese Python as “extremely rewarding, yet challenging.”

“My advice to Victoria and Sang would be to enjoy their summer outside of the lab, too,” he said.

“The experiences they gain through exploring will be the difference between a great summer and an amazing one.”

Richards also might be spending the summer in the lab, as Leinwand has invited him to return to her lab this summer.

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