Howard and Spelman Students Conduct Research at UCLA this Summer

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This summer, four students from two of the best Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) will contribute to UCLA research projects. 

Thomas Iylile, Chelsea Nnebe, and Isaac Wilkins from Howard University (Washington, DC) and Nneze Akwiwu from Spelman College (Atlanta, GA) will spend part of their summer working in Chemistry and Biochemistry labs learning about research areas, ranging from cancer research to materials science, that are a good fit with their scientific interests and career goals.  They join students from various parts of the country who come to UCLA as part of the UCLA Summer Programs for Undergraduate Research (SPUR). Working with UCLA faculty, graduate students, and postdocs, the students will experience first-hand the excitement of conducting academic research in Bruin labs. 

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Visiting undergraduate student researchers (left to right) Isaac Wilkins, Chelsea Nnebe, Nneze Akwiwu
and Thomas Iyile 

with Chair and Professor Miguel Garcia-Garibay (center) at the orientation.

“Science is the engine that moves countries forward.  Our excellence in science and technology is what drives the United States ahead of many other countries,” said Chair and Professor Miguel Garcia-Garibay to the students at the orientation meeting on June 22nd. “There aren’t many under-represented minorities in the sciences, and we can bring our different talents, experiences and perspectives to ask interesting questions about how things work at the molecular level.  We can also help address the needs of our communities and come up with products, processes and technologies that can generate wealth.  Science and technology need us.” Dr. Garcia-Garibay is the founder and faculty advisor of the Organization for Cultural Diversity in Science (OCDS).  Lab Coats2
Visiting undergraduate researchers Thomas Iyile, Nneze Akwiwu, Chelsea Nnebe and Isaac Willkins,
outfitted with safety gear, ready to start conducting research.
The goal of the Summer Research Program is to introduce bright undergraduates to UCLA, give them an opportunity to engage in ground breaking science, prepare them for graduate school, and attract them back for their graduate research.  At the end of their visit, each student will present a poster at the SPUR Poster Session at the California NanoSystems Institute on Thursday, August 13th from 2pm-5pm.
Our Visiting Undergraduate Researchers

Nneze Akwiwu

Akwiwu%2C%20NnezeNneze is a 3rd year Biology undergraduate at Spelman College. “I have spent most of my youth studying and living in Nigeria, West Africa,” she said. “While growing up I recall mentioning my interest in obtaining a Ph.D. and being dismissed for such thoughts. Besides, there were few female role models in my small city to steer my naturally-curious mind towards the sciences.” Being admitted to Spelman College and the scholarships she received provided the missing link for Nneze, “I was offered mentors, exposure to biochemistry labs, and the opportunity to explore research topics that interested me,” she said. Nneze’s goal is to earn a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology because of her fascination with DNA and RNA. “My first class in molecular biology was one of the most interesting classes I’ve ever taken in college,” she said. Chair and Professor Miguel Garcia-Garibay will be Nneze’s UCLA faculty mentor.

Thomas Iyile
Iyile%2C%20ThomasThomas is a 1st year Chemistry undergraduate at Howard University.  He has been participating in DNA synthesis and data collection in the geriatrics division at Howard University Hospital with Professor Oyunumo Ntekin. As part of their research they have been conducting tests on the effects of exercise on Alzheimer’s disease among the elderly. “The genesis of my interest in science is rooted in my mother,” Thomas said. “From the moment I came out the womb I’ve been exposed to scientific videos. Even my cartoons had a scientific foundation to them. Furthermore, my mother was a nurse so I was put on the road towards science. Coupled with my curiosity to create and discover new things, my desire to engage in impactful research was born.” After graduating from Howard University with his B.S., Thomas hopes to apply for graduate school, and “participate and lead research groups that are discovering new science and growing the total knowledge of the world.”  Professor Cathy Clarke will be Thomas’ UCLA faculty mentor.

Chelsea Nnebe
Nnebe%2C%20ChelseaChelsea is a 3rd year Chemistry undergraduate at Howard University.  She has been working as a research volunteer in Professor Kimberlei Richard’s lab in Department of Pharmacology at Howard University assisting with processing brain sections for histology and is learning light microscopy and immunohistochemistry.  Ultimately, Chelsea’s long term goal is to be part of an MD/Ph.D. program in neuroscience. “The brain is my favorite organ of the body for the way it so intricately and powerfully controls the entire constitution of humans and animals alike,” she said. While she excelled in science in school, much of Chelsea’s desire to go into medicine was inspired by the women in her family. Chelsea’s mother is a pediatrician and her maternal grandmother had an interest in science although she was discouraged from pursuing it. Chelsea feels that with a Ph.D. she can make a real contribution to scientific knowledge with new discoveries and ideas.  Professor Jorge Torres will be Chelsea’s UCLA faculty mentor.

Isaac Wilkins 
Wilkins%2C%20Isaac3Isaac is a 3rd year Chemistry & Political Science undergraduate at Howard University.  He has been doing research in the Chemistry Department at Howard with Professor Paul Hudrlik & Professor Anne Hudrlik in the area of calixarenes. They are examining new methods for linking aromatic rings with a one-carbon bridge, with the long-term goal of finding more general ways to prepare calixarenes, thereby leading to new types of calixarenes. The goal is to take these new types of calixarenes & use them for drug delivery, nuclear waste treatment & many other medical & biological advancements. Isaac attributes his interest in science to his mother, a nurse, who was diagnosed with stage four-brain cancer. “My journey serving as her caregiver & studying her condition motivated me to further my studies in the sciences,” he said. After graduating Isaac plans to attend graduate school to obtain his Ph.D. in public health, “I have dedicated my life to being a public servant to the science community & its advancements,” he said.  Isaac will be mentored by Professor Hosea Nelson when he joins the department in July. Until then, Chair & Professor Miguel Garcia-Garibay is mentoring Isaac.

About SPUR

The UCLA Summer Programs for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) offer upper division undergraduate students with outstanding academic potential the opportunity to work closely with faculty mentors on research projects. The programs are designed for students who wish to learn more about the graduate school experience and possibly pursue an academic career in teaching and research.  

About the UC-HBCU Initiative

The UC-HBCU Initiative seeks to increase the number of scholars from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) enrolling in UC academic doctoral programs by investing in UC-HBCU relationships.   “The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is committed to the goals of the UC-HBCU initiative and hopes to be able continue to participate in the program every summer,” said Chair and Professor Miguel Garcia-Garibay. 
Lab Coats

Nneze Akwiwu (center) takes a photo to send to her mother with fellow SPUR researchers Thomas Iyile (left) and Chelsea Nnebe (right).

Photos by Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.