Three Undergraduates Receive Fellowships to Work in Top Labs This Summer

UC Riverside’s Jenna Roper, Alberto Corona and Jack Wang each received an “Exceptional Research Opportunities Program” fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Undergraduates Jenna Roper (left), Alberto Corona (center) and Jack Wang have won prestigious fellowships from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to do cutting-edge research this summer for ten weeks in top laboratories in the country.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Three undergraduates at the University of California, Riverside – one who hated science in high school, another who spoke no English five years ago, and a third who immigrated to the United States not too long ago from Taiwan – have won prestigious fellowships from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), enabling them to do cutting-edge research this summer for ten weeks in top laboratories in the country.

Each $5,000 fellowship, which covers all travel and housing costs, supports full-time research mentored by an HHMI scientist anywhere in the United States as well as attendance at two annual HHMI meetings.  The fellowships are administered by the HHMI Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP).

Each recipient of the EXROP fellowship will be matched with an HHMI scientist by this spring.  In total, 70 EXROP fellowships were awarded this year.  The fellowships aim at ensuring that a diverse and highly trained workforce is available to assume leadership roles in science.

The three UC Riverside undergraduates selected to receive the fellowships are all University Honors students and well on their way to being leaders in science.

Jenna Roper, the student who hated science in high school because “it was all memorizing and plugging numbers into equations,” joined UCR as a philosophy major.  She liked the challenge, liked how it demanded critical thinking.  She was fascinated by the many perspectives with which a philosophical topic could be approached.  And she admired how philosophy required her to clearly communicate her reasoning.

“But I didn’t realize until my first science courses at UCR that all of these things applied to science also!” she said.  “That’s when my perspective shifted and I realized I wanted to be a scientist.”

Today Roper is a sophomore majoring in bioengineering and has been doing research for about a year.

“At this time I don’t know specifically what project I will be working on, but participating in EXROP will allow me to gain experience in a new setting,” she said.  “I’m really fortunate to have wonderful mentors at UCR who made it possible for me to apply for the fellowship and helped me throughout the application process.”

Alberto Corona, who spoke no English five years ago, is a third-year student majoring in cellular, molecular and development biology.  When he came to the United States from Mexico in 2000 to work, he found it difficult to find a job partly due to his inability to speak English.  He enrolled in a community college, picked up the language (and some helpful time management skills along the way), and soon thereafter thought of going to medical school.

“Everything was working according to plan until I learned that my younger brother, in Mexico, was diagnosed with an incurable type of brain cancer,” he said.  “When I went back to Mexico, I found the doctors there could do nothing to save him.  Seeing how my brother – and other patients – suffered made me decide to do research on finding cures for human diseases.”

He is excited about the EXROP fellowship and believes it will have a major impact on his research career.

“I expect it will increase my chances to be accepted into a Ph.D. program that fits my interests,” Corona said. “To get trained by an HHMI scientist in a top school in the country is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  It will allow me to become a better scientist.”

Jack Wang, who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in his freshman year of high school, is now a junior majoring in biochemistry and soon will be declaring a minor in chemistry.  When he moved to the United States, he had difficulty speaking fluent English and was hampered by low self-confidence.  It was not until he took an HHMI-funded class for freshmen at UCR – a course in the Dynamic Genome Program – that he found self-confidence in conducting scientific research.  Now unstoppable, he wants to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry/structural biology or a closely related field.

“I have always wanted to study the biomedical relevance in structural biology and chemistry,” he said. “Receiving an EXROP fellowship gives me an opportunity to do biomedical research and explore the interface between chemistry and biochemistry.  The training I will receive this summer will help me decide the graduate program I would like to join for my doctoral studies.”

At UCR, Roper, Corona and Wang had access to early engagement programs, such as the Freshman Scholars Learning Communities Program, the Dynamic Genome Program and the University Honors Program, that appeal to all students – especially students from underserved communities.

The Freshman Scholars Learning Communities Program in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences builds a community of students with common academic goals and a strong dedication to academic excellence.  In the Dynamic Genome courses, students get to do research in genomics and molecular biology in a state-of-the-art laboratory on campus.  The four-year University Honors Program motivates students to excel in an academic environment, and both guides and encourages them to be actively engaged in their education.

“The selection of three UCR students for HHMI’s highly competitive EXROP program is a tribute to both the quality of our freshmen and transfers from community colleges, and the effectiveness of our early engagement programs,” said Susan R. Wessler, a distinguished professor of genetics at UCR, who nominated the UCR students for the HHMI EXROP fellowships.

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Jenna Roper

Alberto Corona

Jack Wang

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