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

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