FRI Alumnus Receives the Beckman Scholars Award

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Oscar Villarreal (second from left) with previous Beckman Scholars.

Oscar Villarreal will conduct independent research on cancer therapeutics this year after becoming one of the newest members of the UT Beckman Scholars, an award presented to outstanding undergraduate researchers.

Villarreal was introduced to research through his first year in the FRI, working on epidemic typhus in the Virtual Drug Screening stream (VDS). Despite his misgivings, saying that “in high school I thought that research was ridiculous,” he grew to appreciate and enjoy research as the program progressed.

The Beckman Scholars program at UT receives funding from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, which chooses candidates from universities across the nation. The program allows students to design and execute a full-time independent research projects over 15 months, covering two summer semesters and to the fall and spring semesters in between. Students are expected to work on a research project with hopes of publication, and present their findings at the annual CNS Undergraduate Research Forum, a national or international conference during the spring, and at the Beckman Scholar Symposium at the end of their allotted term.

Oscar Villarreal, a Biochemistry Senior
Oscar Villarreal, a Biochemistry Senior

The research Villarreal is working on for Beckman’s is a natural extension of the bio- and protein engineering he learned with the VDS stream and the Walter Fast lab, a part of the UT College of Pharmacy. Whether it was working with infectious diseases, targeting molecular compounds, or analyzing cancer, many procedures remained the same. “Currently I’m running a Western Blot,” Villarreal said, “eventually I’m going to be doing tissue culturing, cytotoxicity testing, and stuff like that.”

The biochemistry senior advised that “every freshman that’s in natural sciences should join FRI,” adding that the concepts he learned doing research helped in “every single class since I was in VDS.” In his words:

I don’t feel like people can adequately describe what research is like. You definitely have to try it. The introductory laboratories don’t do it justice: that’s not research; that’s very boring compared to what you do in research. It’s extremely challenging but it’s also the most rewarding thing you can do. I would recommend everyone with even the slightest doubt to try research.

Villarreal adds that his experience helped him to be competitive for a pre-MD/PhD program in Michigan over the past summer, and that presenting at local and national conferences has helped to show his potential as an applicant to such programs.

Ruth Shear, the Program Director for the Beckman Scholars UT chapter, says that students interested in research should apply for the program regardless of their background, citing a history of unusual scholarship recipients, including freshmen and students without a history as researchers. One of Shear’s fondest hopes is that students can “hang in long enough to feel the joy and excitement that comes when an experiment works,” so that they can “discover for themselves if this might be their life’s work.”

As a professor for one of the Scientific Inquiry Across the Disciplines classes that most FRI students take their first semester, Shear met Villarreal when he was first starting out in research. “Even as a freshman, Oscar was impressing me with the experiments he designed for my class,” Shear said.

When it comes to the future, Villarreal hopes to complete a MD/PhD program before moving on to train as a surgeon. He wants to work with patients and in the lab, saying that as an MD/PhD “you can see where the gaps are in medicine and you can work on them in lab, better the field, and not just affect one patient at a time but a huge number.”

Villarreal has also been honored at the Aspire Awards Banquet, an event held by the College of Natural Sciences which celebrates the accomplishments of underrepresented students, and has presented at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

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Going International: FRI Students Participate in the LSAMP Summer Research Academy Abroad

The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) is best known for encouraging underrepresented minority students to pursue STEM degrees across the UT System. However, this year two former FRI students took advantage of the lesser known study abroad program, a part of the LSAMP’s larger Summer Research Academy.

Mariano Aufiero is a Microbiology and Plan II senior with a passion for immunology research. He spent his summer working at the Charité University, a teaching hospital in Berlin, Germany. There, as a part of an immunology lab, Aufiero studied T-cells and their relation to allergy and autoimmunity.

Maria Villalpando (second from left) and Mariano Aufiero (far right) attend the LSAMP annual conference.
Maria Villalpando (second from left) and Mariano Aufiero (far right) attend the LSAMP annual conference.

This experience builds on a long research career that began for Aufiero the summer before his senior year of high school, in a plant biology lab at UT Arlington. After coming to UT Austin, he started in the Supramolecular Sensors Stream of the FRI and moved into Dr. Lauren Ehrlich’s lab, located in the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology’s Department of Molecular Biosciences. Previous to LSAMP, Aufiero also completed summer research programs at the University of North Texas and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Aufiero values his undergraduate research, because “As a researcher any sort of exposure that you can get in a lab is good,” and learning basic techniques will help in any research career. Research has helped in science classes as well. In his current immunology labs, Aufiero says “I actually do those techniques in lab all the time.”

“The LSAMP program is a phenomenal program for underrepresented students in research fields,” Aufiero said, adding that “people who don’t get an FRI summer fellowship can do the LSAMP summer fellowship” and still get valuable research experience.

Although he “came by immunology a little bit by accident,” Aufiero is now looking forward to graduate school, aiming for a PhD in immunology or something similar.

Maria Villalpando also traveled to Western Europe for her LSAMP experience, spending her summer at the Institute of Plant Sciences in Bern, Switzerland. Working under Dr. Markus Fischer, Villalpando researched the effects of biodiversity on performance in plant communities.

The work was different than her previous experiences in the Jeunger Lab in the UT Department of Integrative Biology, because while she worked with a specific plant, Panicum hallii, to find genes controlling cold tolerance, the Fischer lab looks at entire communities of plants. This caused Villalpando to “approach questions very differently.”

Maria Villalpando presents her LSAMP research
Maria Villalpando presents her LSAMP research

While in Bern, Villalpando noticed that while Swiss culture is not radically different from American culture, the people she met were “aware of a lot of things in their lives,” like their waste and food sources, and the impact they have on their environment. Villalpando asserted that after her research “I wasn’t only thinking about research from different perspectives, I was also introduced to new cultures, to new ways of thinking.”

Villalpando advises students interested in research to “get involved,” by contacting professors and looking for opportunities. She says that researching abroad helped her to assess her options moving forward in her career. “I think it helped me a lot to know that I could continue my education anywhere,” she said.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

FRI Students Complete a 10-Week Summer Research Program

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Lyndsey Wilson (sixth from left), with her University of Washington lab group.

This year two FRI students were awarded and completed the prestigious HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). Lyndsey Wilson and Aliyah Encarnacion worked for over 10 weeks in graduate research labs this summer, doing experiments that they proposed and designed.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length:

Aliyah Encarnacion, a junior in Neuroscience, worked at the Janelia Research Campus under Dr. Karel Svoboda to analyze the paralemniscal pathway (associated with sense of touch) in mice. Encarnacion is currently a peer mentor in the Biobricks for Molecular Machines Stream, led by Drs. Karen Browning and Soo-Hyun Yang. She has also done research in the labs of Dr. Michael Mauk and Dr. Michael Drew, both located in the university’s Center for Learning and Memory.

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Aliyah Encarnacion with her EXROP Research Poster

How did you like the research?

In my case I got to completely create my own project. The lab I worked with specialized in looking at the lemniscal pathway, which is known to be involved in tactile perceptions such as whisker movements and interacting with stimuli in mice and other animals. They looked at it in terms of the somatosensory sensations.

It really required me to think logically and outside of the box; it was like building a project from scratch. I got to do all the things hands on, train the mice myself, do the neural recordings myself.

Who did you work with?

I worked with a postdoc, his name is Diego Gutnisky. He helped me figure out the questions I wanted to ask, and to understand a lot of the literature I was going to have to read to understand the project and what I wanted to do. He gave me lots of great pointers, and was always there every step of the way when I needed him.

I worked with a lot of the trainers to make sure that I was taking care of the mice correctly and doing everything that I needed to do, and I also got to work with my PI a lot. Karel Svoboda was always around and always available to answer questions: if there was some literature I didn’t understand he would sit down with me and read through the paper together, and one of the days I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the oxygen tanks and he came and fumbled with it for me.

It was such a nurturing and encouraging environment, even though you’re surrounded by grad students and post-docs and PI’s who’ve done so much with their research and their careers, they make the environment so encouraging that you don’t even notice that you’re at the bottom of the pond, swimming around with all the bigger fish.

What did you work on?

Svoboda’s lab focusses on areas that surround ALM and looks into the somatosensory and motor cortices and things like that as opposed to looking at the cerebellum and the hippocampus, which are main areas that people like to focus on. It was a completely different brain region that I got to study. So now I’ve gotten to work with the cerebellum, done hippocampal studies, and now I’ve worked with the Zona incerta, which literally means the ‘zone of uncertainty,’ because no one knows what it does.

What are your plans for the future?

Before getting [to Janelia] I’d pretty much decided that I was going to do an MD with a research focus, but talking with Karel and Diego, they’ve been very encouraging and have given me some insight on maybe pursuing the MD/PhD, because it would give me more of an advantage if I did want to do clinical research.

I’m leaning towards doing clinical research and maybe interacting with patients as well. I think being able to do something like that would be really fulfilling, because I’d get to take the research that I’m doing and these patients and apply it on a larger level than if I was in the lab working by myself.

What inspired you to do research?

I’ve always been really fascinated with medicine; my dad was a medic in the army, and so I’d get to go to work with him sometimes, and see a lot of the things he got to do, and I’d watch a lot of discovery health channel before it became the Oprah Winfrey network, which we don’t talk about that [laughter]. During my senior year I got to do an interesting project where I looked at neurodegenerative diseases.

What advice would you give to students interested in research?

My best advice would be to dive in, really take an opportunity to discover if that’s for you. A lot of the time students wait until their third year to finally get into research and realize that they hate it. Try to find something that you’re passionate about and excited about, and give it a shot. Who knows, you might find a project you really like and can really get far with it.

Is there anything you want to add?

I’m really grateful for all those who helped me get to where I am right now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Lyndsey Wilson, a junior in Cell and Molecular Biology, worked in the lab of Dr. Keiko Torii at the University of Washington, under Post-Doc Dr. Aarthi Putarjunan. She has experience as a student and a peer mentor in the Epidermal Cell Fates and Pathways stream, with RE Dr. Tony Gonzalez and PI Dr. Alan Lloyd, working to understand pigment gene regulation in the Arabidopsis plant.

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Lyndsey Wilson (left) enjoying Seattle, Wash.

So, how’d it go, did you enjoy it?

Oh yeah, Seattle was fabulous, beautiful place. They don’t have air conditioning which is really weird. But, it was fabulous. I researched pretty much all day every day. I was usually in lab about 8:30 to 6:30 or 7:30 every day.

What was your research project?

Well, basically I was working on epidermal cell differentiation in plants, specifically the lab I was working in focused on stomata differentiation, which are like the little pores on the bottoms of the plants that allow for gas exchange.

I was working on a specific protein called SCRM, which is a transcription factor. I was working on determining the role of the C terminal domain of that protein in the differentiation pathway.

Did you work specifically with Dr. Torii?

I did talk to her, she was very interested in what I was doing, and she was definitely on top of knowing how much progress I was making and the results I had. But I worked very closely with a post-doc in her lab (Dr. Aarthi Putarjunan).

How did this summer affect how you look at your major and future careers?

It just strengthened my resolve to stick with what I’ve got going now. I want to be a Ph.D. scientist someday, that’s the dream.

How did your work with the FRI help you with this research?

Well, Fri is the only experience before this that I ever had with research, so it gave me the baseline and the techniques needed to work in a ‘real world’ lab. It gave me the lab problem solving skills that I needed.

What did you learn that affected you the most?

Basically, ten weeks is not a long time. In terms of research, it’s not a long time at all. You hit snags, you tend to be a little bit more ambitious with the projects you want to get done in the time you have. But, ultimately, if you’re willing to put in the effort for it, you can get feasible results through the program. If you’re really really lucky.

Would you recommend research programs like this one to other undergrads?

Oh, absolutely. EXROP tends to be really selective, but if you can get nominated and get accepted, do it. Don’t ever turn it down!

What was your favorite moment from this summer?

I guess when I looked in my yeast plates, and I knew I had results. That I hadn’t just wasted my summer, spotting yeast on a plate.

How long did it take?

For spotting yeast? Considering the amount I did, it sometimes took me four hours straight, to make all my stuff.

I hope that you get to do more stuff like this.

I might be going back next summer. EXROP gives you the opportunity to do a capstone if you want to go back and your mentor wants to have you back and has the space and everything.

Interview conducted by Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student