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UGSP February 2022 Newsletter

Every year, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Undergraduate Scholarship Program (UGSP) welcomes a class of undergraduate students who have shown exceptional promise in their development as biomedical researchers and clinicians. The award includes the opportunity to contribute towards scientific discoveries leading to the future of healthcare as both a summer intern and, later, a full-time employee at the nation’s foremost medical research agency. We look forward to the upcoming class joining our community and congratulate them on their fantastic accomplishments thus far:  

UGSP SCHOLAR 

UNDERGRADUATE INSTITUTION 

MAJOR 

YEAR IN COLLEGE 

Ahmed Belghith 

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill 

Biology & Neuroscience 

Senior 

Alison Rojas 

Carnegie Mellon University 

Mechanical Engineering 

Senior 

Alison Tucker 

High Point University 

Neuroscience 

Junior 

Emily San Andres 

Simmons University 

Neurobiology 

Senior 

Eries Jay Moreno 

University of Guam 

Psychology & Biology 

Senior 

Gloria Ogordi 

University of Maryland-Baltimore 

Biological Studies 

Senior 

Helen Wang 

Princeton University 

Psychology 

Senior 

Mary Soliman 

Loyola Marymount University 

Biochemistry 

Senior 

Melissa Cesaire 

Penn State University 

Developmental Biology & Genetics 

Senior 

Moses Hinton 

George Washington University 

Cell & Molecular 

Biology 

Senior 

Shelby Jones 

Arizona State University 

Biological Sciences 

Senior 

Shila Delijookorani 

University of Maryland-Baltimore 

Molecular Biology 

Senior 

Tara Desporte 

Johns Hopkins University 

Molecular & Cellular Biology 

Senior 

William Cole 

University of Massachusetts-Amherst 

Mathematics & Statistics 

Senior 

 

In addition to the incoming class, a cohort of payback scholars are working in a variety of fields here at the NIH. They are acknowledged below.  

PAYBACK SCHOLAR 

UNDERGRADUATE / GRADUATE INSTITUTION 

MAJOR AND YEAR OF GRADUATION 

Afua Asante, MD

(Clinical Fellow) 

Wayne State University School of Medicine 

(Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 2014) 

Alia Pederson 

University of Texas-Austin 

(Neuroscience, 2019) 

Alia Alhomsi 

George Mason University 

(Biology, 2020) 

Alondra Martinez Osorno 

Washington and Jefferson College 

(Biophysics & French, 2022) 

Amalia Londono Tobon, MD

(Clinical Fellow) 

Stanford University School of Medicine 

(Psychiatry, 2014) 

Amin Attari 

George Washington University 

(Neuroscience, 2021) 

Anahit Gevorgyan 

University of Southern California 

(Biochemistry, 2020) 

André Kydd, MD 

(Clinical Fellow) 

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine 

(Biochemical Sciences, 2004) 

Austin Gable

University of Cincinnati 

(Neuroscience & English, 2021) 

Evanjelin Mahmoodi 

University of California-Santa Cruz 

(Computer Science & Computational Mathematics, 2021) 

Franck Bogni 

University of Maryland-College Park 

(Cell Biology & Genetics, 2021) 

Funto Akindona 

Carleton College 

(Chemistry, 2020) 

Hank Cheng 

University of Washington 

(Biology, 2020) 

Ixtaccihuatl Obregon 

University of the Incarnate Word 

(Biochemistry & Mathematics, 2020)

 

PAYBACK SCHOLAR 

UNDERGRADUATE / GRADUATE INSTITUTION 

MAJOR AND YEAR OF GRADUATION 

Jacquelyn Wiliis 

Spelman College 

(Biochemistry, 2021) 

Josette Yeboah 

Lafayette College 

(Neuroscience, 2021) 

June Kim 

Wellesley College 

(Neuroscience, 2019) 

Laura Jett 

University of California-Davis 

(Neuroscience, 2021) 

Lauren Heinzinger 

SUNY University at Buffalo 

(Biological Sciences, English, & Psychology, 2021) 

Mahin Hossain 

 

The Ohio State University 

(Neuroscience, 2021) 

Makheni Jean-Pierre 

Stony Brook University 

(Biology, 2020) 

Maxime Munyeshyaka 

Carleton College 

(Biology, 2021) 

Nicholas Munyan

University of Maryland, College Park 

(Biochemistry, 2019) 

Nyree Riley 

University of Georgia 

(Environmental Health Science, 2019) 

Olufunmilayo Telli 

University of Maryland-Baltimore 

(Biological Sciences & Psychology, 2021) 

Robin Kee 

University of Nevada-Las Vegas 

(Biology, 2021) 

Sandy Reynolds 

Prairie View A&M University 

(Biology, 2021) 

Sarah Izabel 

 

Virginia Commonwealth University 

(Biology & Psychology, 2020) 

Sargis Manukyan 

University of Southern California 

(Neuroscience, 2020) 

Shiva Deljookorani 

University of Maryland-Baltimore 

(Molecular Biology, 2021) 

Stefanie Brizuela 

University of California-Santa Cruz 

(Chemical & Biomedical Engineering, 2020) 

Syeda Fatima 

 

Virginia Commonwealth University 

(Biology, 2021) 

 

SCHOLAR SPOTLIGHT

Every newsletter, we’d like to acknowledge some of the amazing people that are working towards completing their payback. Every one of us comes from a unique background and are forging our own paths while here at the NIH. It’s only right that we do our best to highlight scholar’s achievements and how the UGSP has helped them to work toward their goals. Here are a few of their stories: 

Sarah Izabel - UGSP Scholar

Sarah Izabel 

Sarah graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020, pursuing a career as a neuroscientist. Her current position at the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse has let Sarah move toward her goal of studying the mechanisms of neurological and psychiatric disorders while helping patients lead more fulfilling lives. In addition to her work at the NIH, Sarah has also been awarded a fellowship through RESULTS, a non-partisan advocacy group aiming to end poverty. The fellowship includes 11 months of training that will prepare her to fight on behalf of those who are struggling. Sarah continues to lead the organization’s Maryland division and looks forward to being able to apply her research, and advocacy skills in graduate school. 

Funto Akindona - UGSP Scholar

Funto Akindona 

Funto joined us at the NIH after graduating from Carleton College in 2020. Her goal is to become a physician-scientist and, while she continues her payback in the NCI’s Neuro-oncology branch, has been actively applying to medical schools. On how she’s balancing her lab work and applications, Funto explained that the road wasn’t always easy, that she often found herself leaning on OITE Resources. With their help, she was able to identify her weaknesses and approach them in a positive light. She even went so far as to say that “if it wasn’t for the wonderful folks at OITE,” she might not have even applied this cycle. Despite a stressful application season, she has been able to secure several interviews. The UGSP wishes her the best of luck as she moves onto the next stage of admissions.

Laura Jett - UGSP Scholar

Laura Jett 

Laura graduated from UC Davis this spring, where she went on to be recognized as an outstanding student by their Cognitive Science program. As part of the program, she led her own honors thesis investigation into the effects of depression and anxiety on negative word processing. The flexibility afforded to her by the UGSP Scholarship, Laura mentioned, was key to her being able to pursue such a project and undoubtedly contributed to UC Davis’ recognition of all her hard work. She now finds herself at the NIMH studying pediatric anxiety and explained that, although it isn’t the same line of questioning as in her thesis, her focus on cognitive biases in mental disorders has helped to make for a smooth transition.  Laura hopes to apply all the skills she’s gained during her honor’s thesis and time at NIH in a future clinical psychology or cognitive neuroscience PhD program. 

 

SUMMER RESEARCH PROGRAM RECAP

The summer research experiences for most students have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most summer programs were either cancelled or held virtually. We asked some of our scholars how summer has been for them.  

Laura Jett: 

“It was a whirlwind of a summer, and although I am a bit disappointed, we couldn’t do things in person, I am looking forward to (hopefully) doing more events in person next summer!” 

William Cole: 

“I recently completed a research project with Carnegie Mellon University titled ‘Decoding Stimuli from Local Field Potentials in the Mouse Visual System.’ It was an excellent experience. I read statistical literature and met deadlines for a large code-based project. I am so thankful to my mentor Rob Kass and Graduate Assistant Konrad Urban for their support.” 

Anirban Mahanty: 

“Overall, my summer research experience was incredibly educational. I was involved in pathology research, so slide review was not hindered virtually. However, I personally found it very difficult to connect with my lab, get an understanding of the culture, and struggled to build a good relationship with my mentor over Zoom. I think we did everything we could this summer during the pandemic, with mixers and regular check ins.

I personally had a lot going on and I know a lot of fellow summer interns did as well due to COVID-19. One-on-one check-ins with the UGSP office honestly helped the most in supporting me through the summer to get the most I could out of the experience... The summer experience was a tough one to facilitate in the middle of COVID-19. I felt like I got as much I could out of it and felt very supported by the UGSP office. It was harder to feel supported by my mentor due to communication issues over Zoom. But it was incredibly enjoyable and educational!” 

Evanjelin Mahmoodi: 

“My overall summer experience was nice. I began working in a really supportive research lab and got to learn a lot more about genetics and biology. I do a lot of computational work, which made my remote work easier. Obviously, it would have been a different experience had things been in person, but there were so many opportunities through OITE and UGSP to meet other post-bacs and go through professional development workshops.”  

 

WHERE ARE THEY now? INTERVIEW WITH A UGSP ALUM

Julie Wu - UGSP Scholar

Raised in Queens NY, Dr. Julie Wu attended a local intercity high school and her first exposure to science came later in life at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. Dr. Wu explored many potential majors in college. At first, she wanted to become an environmental lawyer, but she quickly realized this career path wasn’t right for her. She then toyed with the idea of majoring in Physics but decided against it. Next, she took a chemistry class as a rising junior and found that she excelled at the subject. She then declared a biochemistry major but soon switched to the pharmacology and specialized in molecular pharmacology.

Dr. Wu applied for her first research experience not long after being accepted into the pharmacology major: an undergraduate research assistantship in a molecular biology laboratory. During the interview, her prospective PI asked her if she knew the difference between RNA and DNA. Even though Dr. Wu did not know the difference at the time, she was able to secure the position by being honest and saying, “No, but I will learn it!” At first, her only responsibilities in the lab included washing glass pipets and making LB broth but as she demonstrated that she was hardworking and reliable, her lab gave her more responsibilities and freedom. In her second summer as a pharmacology major, she participated in a research internship at the University of San Diego.

In the spring of her fourth year, Dr. Wu applied for the National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program (NIH UGSP) and was accepted into the program. By this point, she had worked as an undergraduate research assistant for about two years. The UGSP played a critical role in financing her fifth and final year of college. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Dr. Wu deferred her UGSP payback and enrolled in the Pharmacology PhD program at Yale University. She completed her dissertation in a molecular pharmacology lab and focused on cell signaling. When asked how she decided on Yale, Dr. Wu admitted that while she wanted to stay on the east coast for her graduate training, the most important factor in her decision was the gut feeling she had when visiting the school. The professors at Yale were down to earth and the environment was both warm and welcoming.

Dr. Wu then completed her UGSP payback in Dr. Pamela Schwartzberg’s laboratory in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) as a postdoc. There, she dove-headfirst into immunology. After a year and a half, she switched labs and joined Dr. Toren Finkel’s group in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and focused on cell signaling, aging, and metabolism. Dr. Wu also applied for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Associate Training Program (NIGMS PRAT) and was lucky enough to receive the three-year postdoc fellowship.

Presently, Dr. Wu works a Supervisory Patent Examiner for the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and her work focuses on evaluating patent proposals in cancer immunotherapy. Patient examiners search the literature to see if the proposal has been done before and if it is something obvious. In either case, the proposed patent wouldn’t be eligible for a patent. Patent examiners also work closely with attorneys to find language that is agreeable to both the USPTO and the researchers who submitted the patent. Importantly, Dr. Wu uses her scientific training every day at work to quickly evaluate a proposed technology because pursuing a PhD “informed [her] not only of the research process but also how to think.” As a supervisor, she has taken on several additional administrative roles and ensures that the patents evaluated by her subordinates are in proper order.

Looking back at her time at the NIH, Dr. Wu admits that she might have chosen to complete her UGSP payback as a post-bac if she could turn back time. When asked why, she said that full-time employee (FTE) slots as a postdoc were scarce and she felt somewhat limited when choosing a lab to complete her payback in. Regardless, completing her payback as a postdoc played a central role in her career development because she would have never explored immunology if she hadn’t completed her payback as a postdoc and immunology is now the focus of her professional career.

Dr. Wu has several pearls of wisdom for both undergraduate and payback UGSP scholars. First, she wants us to understand that there is a plethora of careers open to those who earn a PhD in the sciences. We can pursue alternative paths to research careers and apply the skills we gained during our research training in unique ways. Second, she says that we should present every chance we can. Not only does presenting improve our ability to communicate scientifically but it also expands our professional network, which is essential to surviving in today’s professional world. Third and most importantly, she wants us to be openminded and be willing to try anything. “Opportunities are unexpected,” Dr. Wu said. “You never know where they will lead you. If the experience is a good fit for you, go for it!”