These particular researchers are not faculty or even graduate students: Diana Libuda, Kayvan Zainabadi and Heather Coleman won’t earn their bachelor’s degrees until next month.
All three are Undergraduate Research Scholars in the College of Letters and Science - and all were chosen by the national Council on Undergraduate Research to present their original work on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Libuda majors in molecular, cell and developmental biology, and minors in music history. She is investigating the role of a molecule called BMP-11 in spinal cord development. A better understanding of BMP-11 and other growth factors is a necessary step in developing therapies to treat spinal cord injuries and defects, Libuda says.
Libuda’s research experience taught her something important. "I realized that I love asking questions; I love asking why and how."
She also came to appreciate how much work is involved in research. "Things you spend months working on may end up being one sentence in a journal article," she says.
After her graduation in June, Libuda will join Harvard’s Ph.D. program in biological and biomedical sciences.
Libuda’s faculty mentor is Karen Lyons, associate professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology. "Diana is easily on a par with graduate students," Lyons says. "She picks up techniques quickly, works independently and takes a hypothesis-driven approach. . . . she will make us very proud."
Zainabadi also majors in molecular, cell and developmental biology. He has been working with Eri Srivatsan, adjunct associate professor of surgery, to identify the precise location of the gene responsible for cervical cancer. He has helped Srivatsan identify a candidate: a tumor-suppressor gene called PACS-1.
Since 1955, the standard tool for detecting cervical cancer has been the Pap smear test. DNA testing holds the promise of identifying susceptibility to cancer long before the disease develops.
"Research really drives me," Zainabadi says. "It's one of the most mentally stimulating things I've experienced. It forces you to use all of your wit, knowledge and imagination.”
After his graduation this June, Zainabadi plans to attend MIT to earn his Ph.D. in biology, specializing in genetics and cancer biology.
"Kayvan is an independent researcher with high enthusiasm and commitment," Srivatsan says. "He has contributed immensely to our project. I am confident he will be a well-respected scientist."
Coleman has a double major in marine biology and atmospheric sciences. She has spent three years conducting conservation-related research.
Last year she conducted research in Jamaica, where sewage, over-fishing and hurricanes have severely damaged coral reefs. This year, she has been examining the impacts of invasive plants in the Santa Monica Mountains, and studying the environments in which native plant species grow best.
After she graduates in June, she plans to spend a year doing oceanographic research in the UCLA laboratory of Nicolas Gruber, before earning her Ph.D. in marine ecology.
Coleman's faculty mentor is biologist Jonathan Levine. "Heather is smart, talented and highly motivated . . . I have been most impressed by Heather's rare ability among undergraduates to conduct first-rate independent ecological research," Levine says.
UCLA’s three undergraduates were among 72 honored by the Council on Undergraduate Research. The council, an independent national association, represents faculty and administrators at nearly 1,000 academic institutions.
"Our goal is to make UCLA the leading research university in the nation for undergraduate research," says Judith L. Smith, vice provost for undergraduate education in the College of Letters and Science.
Audrey Cramer, director of UCLA's Life and Physical Sciences Undergraduate Research Center, sums up the undergraduate research experience in these words: "When students engage in research, they see the connections between what they are learning in class and what they are discovering in a laboratory — and those insights help them to see learning in a new light."