Annual FRI Fall Welcome Picnic

Over 450 first-year students attended the Annual FRI Welcome Picnic on Thursday, September 3rd to celebrate their induction into the Freshman Research Initiative, learn about different Research Streams, and meet peers who share their passion for the sciences.

In her speech to the group, TIDES Executive Director Dr. Erin Dolan welcomed one of the FRI’s largest incoming classes by reminding students that the FRI is “the first program in the country to involve students in real research,” starting from their “very first step on campus.” Dr. Dolan added that according to FRI data “more students [in the FRI] graduate with a science degree, stay on in science-related career paths, and pursue graduate education if they participate in FRI.”

IMG_0192Students enjoyed Texas BBQ catered by Pok-e-Joe’s Smokehouse and were encouraged to mingle with Research Educators and stream peer mentors to learn about the different types of research available. Currently, there are over 25 Research Streams in FRI representing most disciplines in the College of Natural Sciences.

Students from all majors in the natural sciences are joining the FRI to try out research for the first time or continue learning after being inspired in high school. Sarah, a marine biology major, is excited to be involved in the FRI, because “hopefully, if I don’t want to do research I’ll find out early, and if I do I’ll get some skills.” Other students, like Biology major Ty, want to find connections and “make some colleagues” in the UT research community.

Just like in the FRI itself, new students are interested in subjects from all corners IMG_0163of modern research.

Jordan Brown decided to use her Biochemistry major to research on genetic therapy, after being inspired during high school. “In my senior year of high school we actually went to a biology conference, and it was talking IMG_0214about all different kinds of gene therapy,” she says, adding that “I just love
anything to do with advancements in cell technology.”

Corbin, a physics major, is fascinated by the concept of the graviton. “Does it exist? My personal goal in life is to discover
the graviton and win the Nobel Prize and invest my money efficiently and retire off of that.” If physics doesn’t pan out, Corbin “will consider being a host on a radio channel.”

Taren likes “all the different aspects that are involved with studying the health of populations, making them healthier,” in areas like “the government, administration, NGOs, research, all that appeals to me.”

Students in their third semester of FRI will be starting their independent research within their streams, or continuing with research started during a summer fellowship. Peer mentors from most streams were available to talk with new students about their research and experience. Carly Dunn and Victor Lam are mentors for the Bioprospecting Stream. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, collaborate with your peers, and trust that it is going to get easier and easier little by little,” Carly advised. According to Victor, being in a stream makes it easier to build relationships, “because we’re all about the same age, we’re going through the same things.” He adds that some of the most valuable things he gained through the FRI were “the friendships I’ve made with everyone: with the mentors, and the connections I’ve made with the RE, whether I’m in grad school, post doc-ing, I’ll probably contact her every once in a while and just see how things are going.”

(left to right) REs Dr. Moriah Sandy, Dr. Gregory Palmer, and Dr. Timothy Riedel were among the FRI faculty who attended the picnic

The FRI Welcome Picnic marks the beginning of Stream Sort, a process during which FRI students are placed in one of their top five streams choices.  During stream sort, students attend open houses this Fall to survey labs and decide where they want to work for the Spring 2016 semester.

RE for the Nanomaterials for Chemical Catalysis stream Dr. Stacia Rodenbusch advises that students “go to as many open houses as possible” to meet the people who they might work with, “because you won’t know until you find something out about them.”

Dr. Tim Riedel, RE of the DIY Diagnostics stream, encourages students to “try to do research in a field that is outside of your major,” not only to try new things but also because learning how to work in new fields “actually makes you a really good, powerful researcher.”

When looking for new recruits, different RE’s look for different traits. Dr. Mike Montgomery, RE of the White Dwarf stream, looks for “motivation and curiosity, which are almost the same thing.” To Dr. Daniel Tennant, RE of the Electronics and Magnetic Materials stream, “collaboration is key,” and Dr. Lauren DePue, RE of the Functional Materials stream says that she doesn’t monitor students: “they get done what they can get done, and it’s at the end of the semester how much work did they put into it.”

Over the past 10 years, the FRI has shown that incorporating undergraduates into novel research labs is not only feasible, but successful. Undergraduate research experiences, which were virtually nonexistent a decade ago, are now being offered in universities across the country through programs like the UT-Austin’s FRI.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student


An FRI Friendship…To Alaska and Back

By Ellen Witte and Cindy Yang 

My life has changed so much in the past four years at UT. I was able to contribute to research through the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). I did the unimaginable and biked across North America with Texas 4000 for Cancer. I lost one of the most important people in my life to cancer, and, at the same time, I gained countless life-long relationships—indirectly through cancer.

Cindy Yang and Ellen Witte-UT class of 2015
Cindy Yang and Ellen Witte, UT class of 2015

When I found out my dad’s health was declining, I was waiting for my turn at the bench designated for phage dilution in my FRI Supramolecular Sensors lab. My dad had been fighting lymphoma for about 15 months then, so when I had received a phone call from my aunt telling me he had pneumonia, my heart sank. I felt lost, and I was unsure about what I needed to do. I summed up everything that just happened as best as I could to Dr. Ghanem, our stream’s research educator, and she took the reigns into her own hands. She contacted all the people necessary for my withdrawal from UT, and she comforted me. Dr. Ghanem gave me the warmest hug I had ever received. That hug alone gave me reassurance that things would be okay.

Two weeks after I left UT, my father passed away. I spent the remainder of that spring and summer with my family trying to fill the void left in my heart with my dad’s passing. Amongst all of the chaos, what really kept me grounded was keeping in contact with Dr. Ghanem and my Texas 4000 teammates. They selflessly gave me their shoulders to lean on and sent me messages of condolence, hope, and kindness. In the fall, Dr. Ghanem welcomed me back into our stream with no conditions and assigned us into groups—Ellen and I were in that same group.

It wasn’t until that fall semester that Ellen and I really cultivated a friendship. We had met in the spring during our first year at UT, but we were on different schedules. Through all the hours of questioning “wait, what are we even doing?”, “what could this NMR spectra possibly mean?”, and “what even is NMR?”, Ellen and I became close. Eventually, I talked to Ellen about how much I was in love with Texas 4000 and how she should really consider joining. I didn’t know much about Ellen’s ties with cancer, but I knew that she would be a phenomenal teammate.

As soon as Ellen had let me know that she applied and was accepted into Texas 4000, I was ecstatic—both for her and her future teammates. Ellen is hardworking, diligent, kind, and dependable. When I decided to shave my head in solidarity with pediatric cancer patients that following spring semester, Ellen was there to cheer me on. During my summer ride in 2013 with Texas 4000, she sent me words of encouragement and motivated me to push my pedals harder. As part of the 2014 team, Ellen ended up raising over twenty grand on her own and became an integral member of her team. This past summer, I was able to relive the Texas 4000 experience vicariously through Ellen.

FRI and Texas 4000 are more than just a research stream or a student organization. They are my family. My undergraduate experience would not have been the same without the incredible individuals that make up each group. I look up to them so much and have learned so many valuable life lessons from them. Dr. Ghanem, Ellen, and Texas 4000 all have helped me to grow as a person and have inspired me to be the best version of myself I can be. They don’t know this, but they were my therapy when I needed it most—my way to healing.

                                                   Cindy Yang, UT class of 2015

I met Cindy when we were both placed into the Supramolecular Sensors (SMS) Stream during our second semester in the Freshman Research Initiative program. Learning every detail about our new lab sometimes seemed overwhelming. I remember spending hours in the SMS lab each week learning how to run reflux reactions, use the spectrophotometer, make unique chemical sensors, and perform other basic organic chemistry analyses that, at the time, seemed over my head. Research can be frustrating, but it was also made so much fun by the people I was surrounded with in the lab. I made friendships that I know will last a lifetime.

Cindy was one such friend. Not only was she an encouraging presence in the lab, she also inspired me to take on something that I never thought I would be able to do. Cindy lost her father to cancer, and she was compelled to do something about it. She decided to embark on a charity bike trip called Texas 4000 – a ride starting in Austin, TX, right here on the UT campus, and ending in Anchorage, Alaska.

I was so curious about Cindy’s ride. I began asking every question I could about it. How much money do you raise? She said each rider raises $4,500 at a minimum. Who can do the ride? She told me anyone who is a UT student – undergrad, masters, or doctoral! Where does the money go? She said to cancer research and support programs at M.D. Anderson and the UT Biomedical Engineering Program.

Talking to Cindy about Texas 4000 prompted me to reflect on my own experience with cancer. Unfortunately, cancer affects almost everyone…including me. I lost Mimi, my maternal grandmother, to a rare blood cancer called Multiple Myeloma when I was in the sixth grade. Shortly after that, I lost my Papa, my maternal grandfather, to lung cancer. Over the summer of 2012, my Uncle Kevin was diagnosed with prostate cancer. And finally, my junior year, my mom was diagnosed with skin cancer. Enough was enough. Cindy challenged me to do something about it. She encouraged me to apply for the 2014 Texas 4000 team, and it was the best decision I made during my college career.

Over the next two years, Cindy and I became closer as we bonded over our shared pain of losing loved ones at the hands of this awful disease. I watched Cindy become a great cyclist, as she trained for months in preparation for her ride. Over the summer of 2013, I watched her progress along her journey on social media and eagerly awaited her Snap Chats and texts, from their various stops along the Rockies route. Soon enough, it was my turn to train for my ride. Cindy was there for me through it all – sending me sweet messages of encouragement and sharing tips along the way. This past summer, I rode the Sierra route from Austin to Alaska along the west coast. I met many people who were affected by cancer and carried their stories along with me. It was an honor to ride not only for my loved ones, but also for others whose lives had been touched by cancer.

It feels like everything has come full circle. Cindy and I met doing research in the SMS lab in the FRI program. Now, after the completion of both of our rides, together we raised over $30,000 for cancer research. Still, our friendship doesn’t stop here. Next year, Cindy and I will both be attending medical school, and I can’t wait to see what type of physicians we will become in the next phase of our lives.

Ellen Witte, UT class of 2015

FRI Students Selected for the HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program


Two FRI students were selected to participate in the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) for summer 2015.

EXROP is sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a long term supporter of the FRI. The program allows student researchers to do ten weeks of full-time research with one of approximately 125 HHMI scientists over the summer, for a stipend of $5,000.

The main aim of EXROP is to provide opportunities for diverse, disadvantaged and underrepresented students to participate in cutting edge research over the summer. The HHMI hopes to inspire students even after their summer experience to “pursue careers in academic science” and form a “highly trained workforce” in the sciences. Like the FRI, the HHMI is helping to develop the next generation of scientists and leaders.Lindsey Wilson

Lindsey Wilson, a second year Cell and Molecular Biology major, worked with her Research Educator Dr. Tony Gonzalez in the Epidermal Cell Fates and Pathways stream, led by Dr. Alan Lloyd, where she was a student and currently mentors under a Tejas Club Scholarship.

Wilson will be working with Dr. Keiko Torii at the University of Washington in Seattle, who researches intercellular communication between plant cells undergoing organ morphogenesis. As a student and mentor in her stream Wilson did independent research on pigment gene regulation in Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant, by looking at the TTG2 transcription factor. She’ll be presenting her research at the Undergraduate Research Forum this April. After earning her undergraduate degree, Wilson intends to pursue a graduate degree and career in genetics and developmental molecular biology.

Aliyah EncarnacionAliyah Encarnacion is a sophomore Neuroscience major who works with Research Educators Dr. Grace Choy and Dr. Soo-Hyun Yang in the Biobricks for Molecular Machines stream, headed by Dr. Karen Browning and Dr. Ilya Finkelstein.

Encarnation started her research career at UTSA, testing the effects of anti-depressants on rodents. She’s also worked with the labs of Dr. Mauk and Dr. Drew from the center for learning and memory departments, with in vivo cerebellar eyelid conditioning in rabbits and acquisition and extinction of fear conditioning in mice, respectively. The Biobricks stream is focused on cloning specific DNA templates and protein expression for the Plant Biology lab of Dr. Browning.

Aliyah will work with Dr. Karel Svoboda at the Janelia research campus in Virginia over the summer of 2015. Dr. Svoboda specializes neuroscience, researching intercellular communication in the brain as a memory is being transferred from short to long-term memory. Dr. Svoboda won the European Brain Research Foundation Brain prize for helping to develop two-photon microscopy, which allows better imaging of neural anatomy and communication.

Both students will attend a meeting in Chevy Chase, Maryland this May to meet their instructors and former EXROP participants.


Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

FRI Hosts First Biotech Career Panel

On Thursday, February 19th , the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) hosted its first Biotech Career Panel. The panel featured six members of the Austin biotechnology community who talked to the students about their career choices and answered questions about the field. The event was sponsored by Thermofisher Scientific, Inc and BioAustin and organized by FRI Research Educators Dr. Josh Beckham and Dr. Gwen Stovall.

The panelists represent a diverse selection of the biotech industry, with varying levels of degrees, expertise, and scientific and business involvement. Together they answered questions posed by students with regard to the balance between science and business, finding the right internships, and the differences between academia and industry.

From left to right: Jeannette Hill, Nick Kosa, Jose Cienfuegos, Rob Burgess, Hillary Graham
From left to right: Jeannette Hill, Nick Kosa, Jose Cienfuegos, Rob Burgess and Hillary Graham

Dr. Rob Burgess, Vice President in Global Business Development at RayBiotech, discussed the scientific and business sides of the biotech industry by relating to his own experience. After starting out working on gene therapy in graduate school, Dr. Burgess moved into business by forming a start-up, Lexicon Genetics. Burgess stated that he “transitioned into a business development role over time,” and told attendees that “at some point you’ve got to take a risk in life, and see if it works out.”

When it comes to finding an internship, Dr. Jeannette Hill said that in her experience “the people we do end up hiring have really contacted us, really shown a specific interest.” She added that interested students should “show [they’re] willing to go a step above,” and joked that “a good intern will only take you twice as much work. A bad intern will take out a wall.” Dr. Hill is a founder of Spot On Sciences, an Austin start up that created the HemaSpot™, which can collect and store blood and other fluids for lab testing in practically any environment.

Dr. Hill explains her company's new device, the HemaSpot
Dr. Hill explains her company’s device, the HemaSpot

In deciding whether to go into academia or industry, Jose Cienfuegos, a technical scientist at Thermofisher Scientific, compared science to the real estate business. According to Cienfuegos, academia is “like you’re looking to buy a house; there’s all of these different options.” On the other hand, in industry “we have one house that we’re trying to sell to as many people as possible.”

Dr. Nick Kosa, a staff scientist at Bioo Scientific who received his PhD from UC San Diego, added that “it’s a completely different question when you’re approaching a product that uses scientific components than when you’re working with academic research.”

Hilary Graham is the Associate Director for Business Development at INC Research; her career has grown out of medical writing for universities and companies. She advised students to “interact as much as you can” and to “be bold and find mentors.”

After listening to the panelists, freshman Chemistry major Joshua McCauley said that “coming here gave me a good perspective on what there is to do past school.”

With access to the FRI program many UT students are becoming inspired to go into industries like biotechnology, and to change the world through their work.


Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

VDS Stream Teaches High School Students about Proteins

During the fall of 2015, a group of fifteen high school freshmen at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy of Austin came together to learn about protein synthesis from some dedicated FRI undergraduate researchers. The program which spanned three separate after school sessions was led by Tony García, a B.S. major in Human Biology and a member of the Virtual Drug Screening (VDS) stream of the FRI. Tony was accompanied by his fellow VDS researchers: Priya Patel, Renee French, Vicky Gomez and Grace Truong. Funding was provided as a mini grant of $500 by The Protein Society which Tony applied for and received.

On the first day of the program, students carried out a classroom activity where they transcribed and translated a DNA sequence into its corresponding amino acid string. They then attached plastic R-group models to a foam “mini-toober” backbone (3-D Molecular Designs), folding it to form a complete tertiary structure protein unit.

On the second day, the students were introduced to PyMOL® protein visualization software, which they used to manipulate a ligand and see how it was boundto an active site of a protein target. This was a class favorite, and according to one student “PyMOL® was really cool and unique to work with.”

On the third day students used PyMOL® to contemplate the specific application of antibiotic drug screening. Students were asked to predict which of a series of docked ligands would best inhibit the tyrosine phosphatase protein of T. Brucei, a microorganism which causes African sleeping sickness.


Through daily questionnaires given before and after the activities, García and his colleagues noticed a “marked improvement” in student knowledge of protein synthesis, folding, structure, and protein-ligand interactions. One student “loved watching my biology class come to life and see how I could apply the material to the real world.” The student also said that “I hope the outreach program does more things like this at LASA”

The outreach program has also impressed LASA staffers. Pre-AP Biology teacher Jill Griffin says “The students involved have already referenced the material [the researchers] taught many times in class!”

Through this seminar, the VDS stream has showcased the commitment that FRI students have towards serving their communities. By educating high school students about science in a tactile and hands-on way, it’s possible to inspire a new generation of researchers and science majors.


Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student