A Dream Summer of Research Awaits for Pair of UCR Undergrads

The Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) connects talented undergraduate researchers with Howard Hughes Medical Institute Fellows

Sang Nguyen Victoria Senechal Donald Richards

UCR students Sang Nguyen (left) and Victoria Senechal (center) were selected to participate in the 2012 EXROP Program, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institutions. At right is 2011 participant Donald Richards.

A pair of University of California, Riverside undergraduates will each be spending a large portion of their summer vacations doing research in labs on the other side of the country.

And they couldn’t be more thrilled about the opportunity.

Junior neuroscience major Victoria Senechal of Santa Ana and sophomore biochemistry major Sang Nguyen of Alhambra, were two of 61 students selected to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), which provides talented undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds with summer research experiences in the labs of HHMI investigators and professors. Students may also present their research in a poster session and network with peers at the HHMI headquarters. The program runs from early June through August.

Past UCR recipients of the award include Donald Richards in 2011, twins Colette and Connie Martin in 2010, Homer Vasquez in 2009, Carlos Mejia in 2008 and Markeith Pilot in 2007.

“It speaks well for our campus that we have had this kind of track record with HHMI and EXROP,” said Richard Cardullo, dean of the Life Sciences division in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS). Cardullo, along with UCR Distinguished Professor of Genetics and HHMI fellow Sue Wessler oversaw the selection process that culled the pool of a dozen candidates to the final two nominees.

“We were looking at a number of different factors,” Cardullo said. “Underserved populations who have an interesting story to tell, who are doing well academically and who have research experience.”

After being selected, Nguyen and Senechal submitted their top choices of the HHMI fellows they hoped to work with. Both were assigned to their top choices: Senechal with Dr. Richard Huganir’s lab at John’s Hopkins University, and Nguyen with Dr. George Daley at Children’s Hospital Boston, the pediatric teaching hospital of Harvard University.

“These are two very prominent biomedical research institutions.” Cardullo said. “This experience is going to broaden their expertise and their view of the discipline. It is going to be part of their formative development as research scientists.”

“The EXROP experience will help me towards my goal of becoming a professional biomedical research scientist,” Senechal said, adding “I wish to pursue a dual career where I can help people in the present while seeking better solutions for the future.”

For Nguyen, who is the first in his family to go to college in the United States, the honor of being selected for EXROP is compounded by the fact that he is a sophomore. Of the 61 students selected for the program just 21 were sophomores.

“That makes it more special,” Nguyen said. “It is an honor to have been selected for this award.”

If Senechal and Nguyen want some insight on what to expect during their summer programs, they need only ask Richards, who worked with Dr. Leslie Leinwand in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the summer of 2011. The senior biology major from nearby Ontario described the experience doing gene sequencing on the heart of a Burmese Python as “extremely rewarding, yet challenging.”

“My advice to Victoria and Sang would be to enjoy their summer outside of the lab, too,” he said. “The experiences they gain through exploring will be the difference between a great summer and an amazing one.”

Richards also might be spending the summer in the lab, as Leinwand has invited him to return to her lab this summer.

About the Recipients

Sang Nguyen

Sang Nguyen

Sang Nguyen

A native of An Giang, Vietnam, Sang Nguyen’s family immigrated to the United States just four years ago. A sophomore biochemistry major from Alhambra, Nguyen balances a full academic load with a trio of research opportunities. For two years he has worked in the lab of UCR Professor of Biochemistry Daniel Gallie, who gave Nguyen “the vision to become an enthusiastic, knowledgeable scientist”. He also has an internship in the Department of Mathematics working on topology and homology with Dr. Marta Asaeda and on weekends he travels to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles to work with Dr. Yong Mi Kim, who does research drug resistance and relapse of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

In addition, he is a peer mentor in the UCR Health Professions Advising Center and president of the Be a Hero – Become a Donor program at UCR, which promotes blood donations and joining Bone Marrow and Donate Life registries.

“I rest on Sundays,” he said.

Kim described Nguyen as “an impressive young student with a fantastic personality.”

“He is extremely hard working and enthusiastic about learning more about how leukemia can be treated,” Kim said. “Given his unbounded enthusiasm, his outstanding intellectual skills and his diligence, I think he will be a terrific physician. We are so happy to have him on our team.”

Victoria Senechal

Victoria Senechal

Victoria Senechal

Victoria Senechal, a junior neuroscience major from Santa Ana, said her interest in medicine was formed in her childhood as she watched her cousin suffer from and later die of cancer.

“I strongly desired to do more and set out asking everyone I knew what was being done for people like my cousin,” she recalled, adding that she became interested in neuroscience in junior high school when her aunt was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “It became my passion when my great-grandmother developed Alzheimer’s and developed further when my father was diagnosed with chronic sciatica.”

Senechal found her calling in research in high school, carrying out a study of how health factors impact a student’s ability to learn and retain information. She works in the lab of UCR Professor Monica J. Carson as a trainee in the Minority Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (MARC U-STAR) program, working on the mechanisms required for learning and memory storage at the molecular level.

She also is a peer mentor for the Health Professions Advising Center, vice president of the California Alliance for Minority Participation in Research and volunteers at the Student Run Health Clinic in Riverside.

Media Contact


Tel: (951) 827-5893
E-mail: ross.french@ucr.edu

Additional Contacts

Richard Cardullo
E-mail: richard.cardullo@ucr.edu

Archived under: Science/Technology, , , , , , ,

Top of Page