From breast cancer to biofuels, undergraduates tackle big problems in a record number of summer fellowships

Tuesday, Jul 27, 2021
by Sara J. Eaton

In her final summer as a college student, Sophia Martinez plans to run, visit her favorite coffee shop, and build computer models for breast tumor analysis.

Last year, under the mentorship of Celeste Nelson, the Wilke Family Professor in Bioengineering, Martinez developed software that analyzed a series of pictures of a tumor model to calculate how fast the tumor had grown. Now, between her junior and senior years, she's building on that work as a paid researcher, thanks to a fellowship from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engi-neering.

Martinez is one of 19 CBE undergraduates to secure University-funded research positions this summer—nearly double the number from last year and a record number for the department. The increase comes as 15 months of pandemic-related public health restrictions give way to normal re-search operations across the campus. For undergraduates, the return presents a critical opportunity to forge their skills.

“Hands-on research is one of the best ways to learn that science and engineering aren't a series of facts and equations but a process for uncovering the truth of the world around us,” Nelson said. As both a pioneer in cancer research and a celebrated teacher, Nelson is advising multiple undergradu-ate summer research fellows this year, including Martinez.

All of this year's fellows have the opportunity to work closely with a mentor while studying a topic related to their interests. With impacts that range from human health to energy and the environment, the fellows' research includes creating liquid fuels from renewable sources, investigating how blood plasma enhances the acceleration of chemical reactions, developing 3D printing techniques without using typical supportive design elements, and studying how light affects a cell’s ability to interpret its surroundings.

Martinez will spend the summer advancing her tumor research alongside Nelson and Susan Leggett, a postdoctoral fellow in Nelson's lab.

“Having this opportunity has been invaluable,” Martinez said. “The funding for this summer is en-abling me to learn the wet-lab techniques necessary for my senior thesis.”

Chances for lab work have been limited for many students during the COVID-19 pandemic. And many companies that normally hire undergraduate summer researchers have yet to scale up to full capacity. In response, the department increased summer fellowship funding by more than 50 per-cent, generating more opportunities and filling some of the training gaps left behind by a shuttered world.

Funding came from a variety of sources. In total, six student fellows were funded by the Fifty Five Fund, provided by the Office of Undergraduate Research; five by the Reiner G. Stoll Undergraduate Fellowship, a departmental endowment; four by the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering; one by the Office of Undergraduate Research Student Initiated Internship Program; one by the Program in Plasma Science and Technology; one by the School of Engineering and Applied Science; and one sponsored by the Department of Molecular Biology and the Center for Quantitative Biology. The fellowships will allow these students to develop the creative research skills and professional relationships needed to tackle their current—and future—projects.

The full list of fellowships is below.

Anahi Ambrosio, Fifty Five Fund
Advised by Emily Davidson
Project title: Potentially using additive manufacturing to make freeform 3-D structures by printing one material within a 3-D matrix of another material.

Taj-Jahnae Brailsford-Forde, Fifty Five Fund
Advised by Jose Avalos
Project title: Researching tardigrades and human cells under the oversight of a graduate student in the Avalos lab.

Dolly Lampson-Stixrud, Fifty Five Fund
Advised by Jose Avalos
Project title: Bioengineering yeast to produce biofuels (either isobutanol or isopropanol).

Jarrad Li, Fifty Five Fund
Advised by Barry Rand
Project title: Plasma-assisted catalysis of ammonia synthesis and the dry reforming of methane.

Satya Nayagam, Fifty Five Fund
Advised by Robert Prud’homme
Project title: Sequential flash nanoprecipitation for biologics encapsulation.

Monica Patino, Fifty Five Fund
Advised by A.J. Link
Project title: Researching lasso peptides.

Sophia Martinez, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Advised by Celeste Nelson
Project title: The role of plasticity of invasion and tumor heterogeneity during breast cancer progression.

Jimi Oniya, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Advised by Celeste Nelson
Project title: Investigating the roles of chemical and mechanical signaling in organ development and disease progression.

Binglun Shao, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Advised by Stanislav Shvartsman
Project title: Using optogenetic tools to study mechanotransduction pathways during Drosophila oogenesis.

Grace Bechtel, School of Engineering and Applied Science
Advised by Clifford Brangwynne
Project title: Liquid crystals in mammalian cells.

Ella Feiner, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Advised by Thomas Gregor and Mike Levine
Project title: Chromatin conformations underlying the regulation of a pair of related genes by a shared enhancer.

Grace Xu, Reiner G. Stoll Undergraduate Fellowship
Advised by Mark Brynildsen
Project title: Analyzing the genome-wide cleavage pattern of topoisomerase IV in Escherichia coli treated with fluoroquinolones and its impact on persistence.

Selena Chiu, Reiner G. Stoll Undergraduate Fellowship
Advised by Sujit Datta
Project title: Modeling self-organization of microbial communities.

Sebastian Quiroga, Reiner G. Stoll Undergraduate Fellowship
Advised by Mohamed Donia
Project title: Designing an algorithm for more efficient search of RiPP BCGs.

Grace Wei, Reiner G. Stoll Undergraduate Fellowship
Advised by M.A. Webb and Y.L. Loo
Project title: Block-copolymer-assisted assembly of protein-polymer hybrid particle composite ma-terials.

Ashwini Shende, Reiner G. Stoll Undergraduate Fellowship
Advised by Jose Avalos
Project title: Computational design of yeast metabolism for high-level isobutanol production.

Katherine Shelburne, Department of Molecular Biology and Department of Quantitative and Computational Biology
Advised by Celeste Nelson
Project title: Investigating how biochemical pathways interact with mechanical signals in the lungs in order to promote branching morphogenesis.

Stephane Sartzetakis, Program in Plasma Science and Technology
Advised by Bruce Koel
Project title: Plasma-enhanced catalysis or electrocatalysis.

Alp Tartici, Office of Undergraduate Research Student Initiated Internship Program
Advised by Clifford Brangwynne
Project title: Investigation of biomolecular condensate nucleation and growth using patchy particle model.